There are voices that soothe, voices that narrate and voices that haunt: but it is not often that we find a voice so distinct, so deliberate and so effortless that it is capable of performing all those three things. John Maxwell Coetzee, the prophet of our time has such a voice. Entering a novel of Coetzee does not amount of getting lost into a world of its own kind. Coetzee is not Kafka. When the guilt speaks through him, of the reluctant colonizer of ‘Waiting for Barbarians’, we don’t feel any particular design on the part of the creator to invoke a particular emotion in the heart of the readers for the central character through which the novelist has chosen to speak. When we meet the decaying matriarch of the novel ‘Age of iron’ lamenting for a generation lost in the battle leading to no emancipation, we do not feel like the arch-angel like presence of the character passing judgement, taking pity, easing the end for her. Rather we see things through her, a conscientious outsider, who is so distant from the everyday conflict tearing the world apart that all she can do is to observe and wait for her end to come, while the guilt of remaining an observer and not an actor on the stage of history erodes her core.
History in the pages of Coetzee does not hold its breath; it does not wait for the ominous to take shape, to let the readers understand the difference between the imminent and the escapable. It does not unfold in a gradual manner baring its heart slowly yet definitely. Rather it befalls upon its victims, the characters whom Coetzee never fails to identify with, thus rendering them the center stage and the words they never had. Coetzee confers them with the strength to face the disasters that are imminent and often innate in their own presence. The characters such as Michael K is not very frequent in his works, ever so silent, waiting for the time and life to pass their judgement upon him. Rather we anticipate more for the characters like Susan Barton, the feminine voice of retelling Robinson Crusoe, excluded and silenced by history and collectivity. Similar voice emanates to tell the story of the white woman in the novel “In the heart of the country”. The lack of reliability on the part of the story-teller is something Coetzee reinvented, by starting to narrate the voice, not of hegemony but of oppressed. The characters Coetzee built with so care and compassion often trudge along the margins of the civil world that we know of and yet have the oddity and audacity to make a commentary.
The man who witnessed everything as an outsider, would, for obvious reasons, watch his own life in a similar fashion to no one’s surprise. All three parts of his excellent autobiography were not the reminiscence of an old man filled with lamentation and regrets but a visitation of his past self through eyes of a distant disinterested viewer. I cannot remember reading an autobiography more eloquent and more poetic than the semi-autobiographical novel of Herta Muller (unofficially) “The land of Green Plums“.
Though he did not experiment with forms in a rebellious manner until very late when he introduced a very innovative style in “The diary of a bad year” or even in “Summertime”, I don’t think I would remember him as the maverick of forms. Coetzee transcends into something larger than a South African voice of conscience or the nobel laureate novelist or a two-time booker prize winner or anything that is described through worldly reviews and awards. Coetzee would remain, for millions, the last of his kinds, the voice of reason looking through the glass of an outsider and yet immersed by the guilt as well as rectitude. And for me, he would simply be the writer who taught me to speak not the words of the world, but the words of my soul and for that, and only that, he would always be the author who has undone and made me, for countless occasions.