If not for book club, I don’t think I’d have ever picked up another J.M. Coetzee book.
In my first year at uni we read Waiting for the Barbarians. I’m not sure that I ever finished it but I remember there being a sort-of treacle-like, entrapping quality about his writing that I didn’t enjoy. With book club being book club, though, I set that aside and gave his dark world another shot.
Coetzee digs deep into his themes of sexual shame and rape in this short book, but never in a particularly direct or shocking manner. His brooding, male, 50-something protagonist, David, is something of a womaniser, though not in the Nick Cave, Bunny Munro sense. There’s a pervading sense of patriarchy to his conquests which, rather than political, feel uncomfortably fatherly in a literal way.
Outside of the sexual undertones and overtones, there’s still a little slack around his brooding male protagonist. His actions feel realistic and rightly oblivious at times, and although narrated in third person there is often a feeling on the part of the reader, a nagging to look beyond his point of view. Like an unreliable narrator in third person, we never glimpse upon the minds of other characters. There are some beautiful sections in which he is writing an opera that intertwines with his story of romance, but as a metaphor for the entire book I didn’t feel that it worked.
Coetzee’s female characters aren’t particularly well-drawn, sounding like overly philosophical academics rather than living, breathing, human women. While this adds to the sense of David’s alienation from women and amplifies his inability to get close to them, their words are stilted with mathematic precision that comes out sounding illogical. But I suppose that’s all part of the intention.
Generally though, the frequent bursts of poetic prose befitting of his protagonist’s interests elevate Coetzee’s prose above the standard broody middle-aged male fare that I had expected and into more literary territory. Laid against the backdrop of apartheid South Africa, there’s lots more to learn for the uninitiated (like myself), but this definitely proved itself to be a worthwhile read. The more I think about it, the more I feel I get it.
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