Life and Times of Michael K

Life and Times of Michael K Coetzee and South Africa

J.M. Coetzee is, to many, the quintessential South African writer. He was born in Cape Town in 1940. He attended college in South Africa and received a degree in mathematics in 1961, and though he spent most of the next two decades living and working abroad, he returned to take a post as professor of English literature at the University of Cape Town. He remained there until 2002, the year he moved to Australia. Almost all of his novels are set in South Africa, and it is clear he has a profound connection to the land. However, the fact remains that he repatriated himself in Australia, becoming a citizen in 2006, and seems to have a complicated relationship with South Africa.

The New York Times summarizes the main questions: “Why would a novelist who has written so powerfully about the land of his birth pack up and leave? Were his 2002 move and his taking of Australian citizenship last year a betrayal of his homeland, or a rejoinder to a country whose new government had denounced one of his most important novels as racist? Was it just another example of the “white flight” that has sent hundreds of thousands of generally affluent South Africans to other Anglophone countries since the end of apartheid? Or was it a tacit acknowledgment that Coetzee had exhausted his South African material, that the next chapter in the country’s history was the rise of the black middle class, and what did an old resistance writer, with his aloof, middle-aged white narrators, know about that?” Coetzee is an elusive figure, rarely speaking to the press and even avoiding awards ceremonies where he is being honored. He does not comment on his move—beyond oblique statements such as, “It has been a very happy move and I think the best decision I made in my life” (quoted in The Age). However, critics and journalists have long probed his motivations. There is the sense that among Coetzee’s literary colleagues and notable South African figures that Coetzee is not entirely fair or flattering to the post-apartheid black man, as the criticism swirling around Disgrace (1999) suggested. Tensions arose when the African National Congress criticized the novel, and then, when they did congratulate their “son of the soil” for winning the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature, they were told to apologize and renounce their earlier criticism of Disgrace. These sorts of arguments over Coetzee’s novels were, and are, common.

Coetzee himself has, scholar Monica Popescu writes, “pointed out how wrong it was for him, a writer of the white minority, to be repeatedly invited to speak on behalf of the oppressed majority. At the time when Coetzee’s international audience was growing, his allegorical rendering of power, knowledge, and subtle forms of complicity did not fit in with what and how his compatriots associated with the antiapartheid movement were writing.” Yet, as Popescu sums up South African writer and academic Imraan Coovadia's complaints, “Coetzee’s oeuvre has been treated as a religion — the ultimate word on South Africa and suffering, even when the texts lack direct reference and relevance to the lives of his fellow citizens. His recent works are not really being reviewed but simply added to the Pantheon.”

Similarly, the Times notes that “Stephen Gray, a South African poet, said Mr. Coetzee's emigration to Australia in 2002 fueled the debate about whether he was loyal to South Africa. While some writers said that they felt South Africa needed them to work actively for change, he said, Mr. Coetzee always remained aloof. 'Most sophisticated readers think of him as a writer who writes for overseas,' he said."

Coetzee knows he should not be held up as the unimpeachable voice of South Africa in the popular imagination, but it happened anyway, and both he and his critics are not always pleased about it.