Context: Spent over 2 hours burning unbelievable amounts of old paperwork from our office while I was reading this. Very satisfying!
Coetzee is turning into one of my favourite novelists. This guy didn’t win a Nobel Prize for nothing. I have, in the past, struggled with Nobel laureate writers: Pamuk, Hesse, Mann, García Márquez – all have written stuff that is mind-bogglingly dull and inaccessible. But with every novel I read of Coetzee’s, I find myself learning a different perspective on humanity. That’s got to be valuable.
This is the earliest Coetzee I’ve read. I started (in fact this whole blog started) with Disgrace, as many do, and last year also read The Life and Times of Michael K. Disgrace is dark, there’s no doubt about that. It has undertones of racism and violence that are disturbing. Michael K is ethereal, beautiful and moving. Heart of the Country is nowhere near Michael K. In fact, it’s way off to the left of Disgrace; it’s disturbing from the very first page and doesn’t let up for a minute.
For the entire length of the novel you’re locked into the mind of a girl/woman who lives on an extremely remote farm in South Africa. She has an extremely complex relationship with her father who has fathered many children who have died, left, been killed, vanished without a trace leaving her alone to live with him.
The novel is disturbing in many ways, not just in terms of the violence, insecurity and hatred emanating from the protagonist. For a start, you are never sure what is real and imagined. Events repeat themselves with different outcomes without warning. Secondly, you are never sure what time it is. Is the protagonist a child, is she a young woman, is she elderly, is she all three? Finally, each character (and there are precious few) moves through a variety of guises so that you are never sure what to make of them; are they friend or foe?
If Coetzee set out to help us understand how isolation, loneliness and emotional abuse can make someone mentally unstable, if he has tried to help us grapple with the complex realities of the racial legacies of South Africa, if he has attempted to portray the desperate helplessness of those who grow up prisoners within their own families then this is an extremely important novel. I believe his intention was to tackle all three and, for a second novel, he has achieved something quite remarkable.
Don’t get me wrong, this book is not easy, and it is difficult to understand. In so being, it demonstrates the unique medium of the novel to reflect our own difficult and unfathomable lives.