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Saturday, August 13, 2016

Dusklands (1974) by J.M. Coetzee

18th century engraving of the Hottentots, a major player in early white/African relations in Southern Africa
Book Review
Dusklands (1974)
by J.M. Coetzee

   There is a good argument that J.M. Coetzee is the single author who best represents the spirit of the original 2006 edition of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.   First, there are the total number of novels that he placed in the first edition: 10.  Second, there are the total number of novels that he lost in the initial 2008 revised edition: 5.   Thus, whatever impact the editors were going for in 2006 involved putting 10 Coetzee titles on their list, and two years later they decided that half his books weren't good enough to keep.   This is a ratio that is roughly in line with other authors who had four or more titles on the first list- they usually lose about half of them in the 2008 edition.

  Third, there are his characteristics as a writer- biographical and stylistic.  He writes in English, but he's not from England (South Africa), he employs techniques that can be easily characterized as "post-modern" but  his novels are never experimental.    Finally, he wrote in the last part of the twentieth century.   The 1001 Books list is strongly biased towards the 20th century, and the middle and end of that century in particular.   Just looking at the statistic generated by this blog- I'm at 546 titles.  Add about 50 titles for books that I'd already read and some pre-18th century titles I skipped- that gets it to 600.   Dusklands was published in 1974.   That means from roughly 1970 to the publication date of 2006, forty percent of the 1001 Books you need to read before you die were published.

  I'm positive there were some pragmatic reasons to cram so many titles from the near-past and actual present onto the list.  You want books that people can actually buy, you wants books that people have heard of and are interested in reading.   Books from the recent past and present are more interesting to the general reader than older books.  I understand why, but I suspect my own thousand novel list would reduce the number of contemporary works of fiction by about 100 to include some non-novels and works from the major religions.  I'm not religious, but it seems to me that books from the major world religions like the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Koran, etc. should be included.  They also left poetry entirely out of the project- which seems insane.  Also, no Shakespeare. And then I'd add in more books from the 19th century golden age of the novel.

  Dusklands was Coetzee's first published novel, and it's actually more like a pair of novellas which share a thematic link.  The first part deals with an American scientist working on a project about the Vietnam war for the government.  He goes nuts and stabs his infant son, winds up in an insane asylum.

  The second part, far more compelling, is a fictionalization of a "Heart of Darkness" style trek into the African veldt by a purported ancestor of Coetzee- at least they share the same name.  The second half, called The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee is recognizably a post-modern historical novel(la).  Coetzee is presented as a real historical figure, to the point of including a post-script with his contemporaneous declaration of the geographical discoveries of his expedition.    After staking out his claim as an early Dutch settler of the African interior, the Narrative takes place as Coetzee sets out to the north in search of elephants.

  Along the way, he encounters native tribesman- who still live independent lives, unsubjugated by western powers- and falls ill.   During his long convalescence, all his possessions are stolen, and when he recovers, his "slaves" abandon him to remain with the native village.  During his harrowing return home, his only remaining loyal servant dies fording a seasonal river, and he returns home alone.

   A year later, he returns with some soldiers and exacts his revenge.  That's the whole of the narrative, and it resembles The Heart of Darkness in more ways than one, but it's different, being written by an actual African in a way that has an actual connection with the people.  I'm not sure that Dusklands would have made the list if it had not been Coetzee's first published novel.  Specifically, the combination of the two disparate narratives seems more like the coupling of two separately written novellas then any grand plan.

  Personally, I'm very interested in narratives about colonialism and I think that is a common concern for anyone who reads literature.  It's impossible to put aside the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature, the two separate Booker wins, and the fact that he is one of a handful of serious authors who you can find in any airport book shop.  Finally, Dusklands is under 130 pages from start to finish, so the time commitment is minimal.

  J.M. Coetzee is an excellent example of a canonical author who is still active.  He actually has a book coming out next month, The Schooldays of Jesus.  The release of a new work by a living artist who has already obtained canonical status is the most significant event in the entire cultural industrial complex.  The reason these events are so important is because of the small number of living artists who have obtained canonical status while they are still active.

  For an author with a place in the canon, it is entirely fair to ask whether the new work is the best book the author has written, or better than his canonical works.   Any criticism of the existence of a specific canon ignores the fact that an artist obtaining canonical status for a specific work is the single best thing they can do for their career.  The canon is the blessed intersection between art and commerce and the question of which works for canonical artists is of high importance.

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