Introspection by reflection
I recently pulled this book off my shelves, forgetting that I had read and reviewed it on Goodreads 8 years ago. And got engrossed in it again. It is an exercise in mirrored introspection, where the author reimagines a period in his life through the imagined voices of people (mostly women) whose lives had briefly crossed his. It is well worth reading again; those other voices hint at stories of their own, touched if only slightly by that of the author they describe, the whole depicting the network sustaining the peculiar, hermetic Afrikaner culture of South Africa in the 1970s.
Here is my original (2012) review.
In this his third fictional autobiography, Coetzee portrays the early adulthood of a man very much like himself — with even the same name, “John Coetzee” — with similar origins and history (born into an English-speaking Afrikaner family near Capetown, returned to South Africa after some years abroad including the US, later to become a well-known writer). However this fictional John Coetzee is now dead, and what we learn about this period of his life, in his 30s and before he achieved fame as a writer, comes from journal notes and interviews by an English academic of people who were somehow involved with him then: a suburban housewife in an adulterous affair, an Afrikaans-speaking cousin with whom he had as a child fantasized marriage, a younger French woman and college-teaching colleague who saw her affair with him as a way to overcome a bad marriage, a Brazilian woman he ineffectually pursued, and a male teaching colleague with whom he had a cordial but rather distant friendship. The Coetzee portrayed here is a man very sensitive to injustice, hopelessly incompetent socially, who has left his acquaintances somewhat puzzled that he ever amounted to anything. Certainly, to some extent this is an effort by the author to see himself as others see him (as the Burns poem has it), but the novel is not so much about a real John Coetzee as about South Africa in the 1970s, the limitations and hypocrisies in Afrikaner culture, the indifference of most of the world (at least in that setting) to the literature that so much matters to the fictional and to the real John Coetzee. Besides the self-deprecating and often very amusing tone of the central protrait, the book offers clear-eyed, unsentimental perceptions of Afrikaner self-isolation (with a language spoken nowhere else in the world, as the fictitious Coetzee has jotted in his journal), the mind-dulling routines of college ritual, and the sharply contrasting concepts of manliness as between the protagonist himself and, most sharply, the Brazilian widow who remembers her big, bold husband.