Sunday, June 23, 2013
Dusklands by J.M. Coetzee
The documentation of the known and unknown
Dusklands is comprised of twin novellas. In the first, a Vietnam War researcher documents his experience of studying propaganda techniques. Then he goes mad. In the second, an eighteenth century Boer settler in South Africa documents his experience meeting an unconquered Hottentot/Namaqua tribe. Then he goes mad. In the first story, Eugene Dawn works on a paper analyzing the effectiveness of American propaganda. But his narrative is far more concerned with his awful wife, misogynistically portrayed, and their (her?) son (Dawn seems strangely detached from the boy). Dawn is also tormented by Coetzee, his superior at work. The story ends badly. The Vietnam theme is a little dated – the motivating passions are not clearly explained, except for the technologically superior society destroying the farmers. Yet who is the victor?
The second novella was more compelling, a gripping journey into the human soul. Jacobus Coetzee and his domesticated Hottentots enter the uncharted desert and encounter a Namaqua tribe who has never before seen a white man. That is, they don’t know they are supposed to bow down. Coetzee thinks he is in control, but immediately is stripped of his cattle, his servants and his pride. He is humiliated, much as the narrators in Disgrace and Waiting for the Barbarians, were humiliated. The physical body betrays them, and without imperalistic civilization as a framework, they are worth nothing. Coetzee escapes, then returns to the desert and exacts a terrible revenge. But as he does so, his heart is not in it.
This book is about men who think they have things figured out, then it becomes apparent they have NOTHING figured out. This ignorance extends not only to the narrators of the “documents” but the “editor” of the historical “documents” (who cannot understand their meaning). Does this also extend to the reader of the “documents”?
As usual, the real strength is the bold uncompromising prose lacking any sentimentality. There are also metafictional tricks here, as "Coetzee" the character appears in both novellas. Also there is a conceit that the “documents,” written by obvious madman, were discovered and published with no reference to the obvious madness. There are similar themes as in other Coetzee work-- a playful literary trickiness, a faux documentary narration, uncontrollable sexual yearning, and the tension between civilization and brutality. The editor of the Jacobus Coetzee section laments the fact the Americans were able to kill all their natives, unlike the Boers, who must continue to live with theirs.