Silence and Memory in J.M. Coetzee’s Fictions of the Self


andessurvivor: Coetzee, 2013 (CC)

by Medha Singh

In these times, even writing about speaking is a kind of action.
— James Wood

David Atwell has referred to J.M. Coetzee’s work as a kind of “situational metafiction.” The staunchly self-critical and self-abnegating characters in his autobiographical writings such as Youth and Summertime lavishly supply us with neurotic inner monologues perpetually pierced with an anxiety fairly characteristic of sedentary male lives, where all is said about a thing, yet the very thing itself remains unmentioned: whether it’s class, race or gender. All for the best, I suppose. For these are helpful categories, but all too plain at the same time. The mental lexicon of Señor C in Diary of a Bad Year, Paul Rayment in Slow Man and both the dead Pavel and his presence inside the living figure of Fyodor in The Master of Petersburg, all point to what Claudia Rankine has called the “failing, failed, anxious, self-interested individuals, which we all are.”

Coetzee’s writing is not simply a fictional or postcolonial project. While it is those things, his work engages deeply with other things, too: various philosophical concentrations, such as practical ethics (Elizabeth Costello), knowledge and the history of knowledge (Foe, Elizabeth Costello, The Schooldays of Jesus), the question of being and the formation of a political consciousness (Age of Iron, Summertime, Dusklands, Waiting for The Barbarians), the palpability of one’s material truth as a political being (Life and Times of Michael K) and, well, human psychology, vis-à-vis his engagement with women’s subjectivity. The moral complexity and seriousness of his characters beg for a philosophical reading, as much as one rooted in the annals of literary criticism. As James Wood has put it, “Coetzee seems compelled to test his celebrated restraint against subjects and ideas whose extremity challenges novelistic representation.”

The postcolonial school may have claimed Coetzee, yet his attempt at a satirical sort of self canonisation actively resists any and all approaches to his writing within a single framework. He is neither a postmodern writer, nor a formalist. However, at the same time, his metacultural, metafictional situatedness renders him a philosopher making prosaic utterances, or a novelist making philosophical ones: at least one is truer than the other. Between these utterances lie vast silences, whether historical, ethical or lingering along the edge of the metaphysical, even theological. To study these silences would mean a careful examination of all absences, be it within the narrative arcs or the characters within: Friday’s speech in Foe, Susan’sperpeptual recollection (this is the mode of her speech, it’s all memory, very little happens actively), Pavel’s presence in Fyodor’s handling of his death, Ana Magdalena from whom we hear little, but of whom we hear so much. The black girl who chooses to run away after she hears, “you can stay, or you can leave” in Waiting for The Barbarians. What is the telos of this mode of writing? That besides creating great, almost cathartic, moments of speech, of rich monologue, little is uttered proportionally as things happen. The speech act is missing where one normally finds it in life.

Coetzee seeks some sort of primordial pre-truth, knowledge before knowledge, something that lies beyond the page, beyond history. It’s almost as if the very thing seeped in the pre-linguistic silence of human subjectivity begs excavation, lying just within reach. He finds a glimmer of it in the life of animals, in the veld and its emptiness. There is such aridity in the spaces he writes of, it is no shock that Coetzee has been accused of churning out “passionless” novels. However, “ashen”, “austere” or “blanched” his register may be, it is a project ensconced in a vast silence. What remains free of the act of speech, and thus ‘pure’ in a sense within writerly consciousness, is plain for us to read in his diaphanously clear narrative voice, no matter which subject may don its cloak. It is an inner life transposed to the page, through this conscious self-criticality, which may even begin to appear, with each reading, as a larger mode of being. This mode places recollection, remedy and retribution as its locus, its central concern. It is a project of seizing a selfhood  and saying all that cannot be said, because perhaps it is “too evil” (Elizabeth Costello) to do so.

If we make an attempt to look at Coetzee’s situatedness through the Bhabhain lens of ‘binary geopolitical polarities’ (The Locations of Culture), and this very writerly self that is speaking to identity; and if we insist on looking at the writing subject as part of some sort of European subculture, as in the case of Camus, we arrive at ‘hybridity’ as ‘new, neither one or the other’. We arrive at an oeuvre that is ‘beyond the rational terminus’ as James Wood once wrote. There is much to be said for the lengthy monologue of Coetzee’s major characters, and the arc, the trajectory, of his minor ones.

Coetzee may have slipped and fallen accidentally into the canon of postcoloniality, but he doesn’t belong only there. His work consciously resists scrutiny, creates room for thinking from a wider and deeper lens of philosophical inquiry, asks us to surrender to it less of our intellect and more of our intuition, teaches us to inhale its life whole. It’s high time we took stock of it.


About the Author

Medha Singh is a poet, translator and editor. She is editor of Berfrois. Her first book is called Ecdysis (Poetrywala, 2017) and her second book is  a work of translation, a collection of love letters that she translated from the French, penned by Indian modernist painter Sayed Haider Raza during his time in France, I Will Bring My Time: Love Letters by S.H. Raza (Vadehra Art Gallery, 2020). Her work has appeared in Almost Island, Indian Quarterly, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Poetry at Sangam, Hotel, 3:AM , The Charles River JournalThe Wire and Scroll among others. Her work has been anthologized in Singing in The Dark (Penguin, 2020), The Gollancz Book of Speculative Writing (Harper Collins, 2021), Contemporary Indian Poetry by Younger Indians (Sahitya Akademi, 2020), Best Indian Poetry 2018 (RLFPA editions) among others.  She has delivered a TEDx  talk on effective arguing, and has been nominated for the TFA award, twice. Her second book of poems is forthcoming.

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