Thursday, 17 September 2009

Book Review: Summertime: Scenes from Provincial Life by J. M. Coetzee

Unlike a biography, an autobiography requires the author to analyse himself. The degree and nature of analysis determines how interesting the story will turns out to be. In M.K. Gandhi’s My Experiments With Truth, the author sets out facts in a gentle and undulating manner, interspersing facts with explanations. There are admissions of failures and of mistakes made, of weak moments and errors of judgements. Unlike Gandhi, J.M.Coetze takes self analysis to an extreme in his latest book Summertime, a fictionalised autobiography and third in a trilogy which began with Boyhood and Youth. By using the services of one Vincent, a biographer who wants to hear all about Coetzee from various sources so that he can pen Coetzee’s tale, Summertime examines Coetzee’s adult life from various angles and paints a very unflattering picture of himself.

There are stories from Julia, a married woman with whom Coetzee had an affair, from Margot, a cousin whom Coetzee wanted to marry when he was young, Adriana, a Brazilian lady whose daughter took English lessons from Coetzee and from Martin and Sophie, two colleagues with whom Coetzee worked. In addition to these sources, there are extracts from Coetzee’s diaries. With tales from all these sources, as narrated to Vincent, Coetzee paints a self portrait that is so ruthless that you don’t even feel sorry for the author.

John Coetzee is shown as a misfit, always ill at ease, shy and reserved, without any friends, a man in need of a decent haircut. Despite all this, Coetzee does not come across as a man who deserves any sympathy, though he is shown as a loser, time and again. For example, with cousin Margot, Coetzee goes on a long drive across the veldt in his pickup truck and the engine conks off in the middle of nowhere. Coetzee and Margot are forced to spend the night inside the truck, hugging each other to keep themselves warm. This is the same Margot whom Coetzee hoped to marry when he was young. Margot doesn’t feel anything for Coetzee, though they are alone and hugging each other to sleep. It could be because Margot is happily married to someone else. However, in Margot’s own words, ‘why is there no male aura about him? Does the fault lie with him or on the contrary, does it lie with her, who has so wholeheartedly absorbed the taboo that she cannot think of him as a man? If he has no woman, is that because he has no feeling for women, and therefore women, herself included, respond by having no feeling for him? Is her cousin, if not a moffie, then a eunuch?

The reader knows that Coetzee has feelings for women, that he has had affairs before, that he still loves Margot. We know that he is not a moffie (a derogatory Afrikaans term for a gay man) or an enuch. No, Coetzee is just not man enough for Margot.

Time and again, Coetzee fails to make an impression on the people he meets, despite having very strong convictions and views on issues ranging from animal rights to vegetarianism to apartheid. Coetzee’s convictions and ideology make him stand out from the crowd at all times, however. For example, Coetzee believes that white South Africans ought to do manual labour rather than rely on hired black helpers. For this reason, he tries to maintain his pick-up truck himself, does all repairs to his house himself, learns Khoi, a Hottentot dialect which is not spoken by anyone else etc. None of these activities manage to win him brownie points with anyone except maybe his own father, who lives with him and is portrayed in an equally pathetic light.

I have been a Coetzee fan ever since I read Disgrace which won Coetzee a second Booker in 1999. Coetzee is one of two individuals who have won the Booker twice. In 2003, Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Summertime has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize which is to be announced on 6 October 2009. If Coetzee wins a Booker for Summertime, he will be the only author to have won a Booker three times.

I really enjoyed Summertime. Like his other books, it is dry, sparse, to the point and cruel. However, I doubt if it will win the Booker.

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