It’s a dog’s life | Daily News


Following the leads in the late novels of J. M. Coetzee

It’s a dog’s life

Stray Dogs resting - Istanbul, Turkey, Europe
Stray Dogs resting - Istanbul, Turkey, Europe

This is the Magistrate, imprisoned in J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980): “I build my day unreasonably around the hours when I am fed. I guzzle my food like a dog”. “At the height of the spasm I trot around the room holding my face, whining like a dog.” “There is no way of dying allowed me, it seems, except like a dog in a corner.” “I bolted my food like a dog and wanted more.”

In The Life & Times of Michael K (1983), K visits his mother in hospital and drinks her tea, “gulping it down like a guilty dog”. Later, he escapes from a rehabilitation camp: “The poor simpleton has gone off to die like a dog in a corner”, comments the medical officer in charge of his care.

The Master of Petersburg (1994) messes up Dostoevsky’s biography: in reality the author’s son Pavel outlived him, but Coetzee imagines Dostoevsky mourning Pavel. “Poetry might bring back his son”, thinks Dostoevsky. “He has a sense of the poem that would be required, a sense of its music. But he is not a poet: more like a dog that has lost a bone, scratching here, scratching there.”

Disgrace (1999) is full of real dogs. David Lurie is a professor who loses his job over an affair with a student. He goes to live with his lesbian daughter Lucy who runs a kennel, and he himself later works at an animal shelter. Lucy is raped by three men and a pregnancy results. Lurie muses on the difference between raping and mating, and wonders “what kind of child can seed like that give life to, seed driven into the woman not in love but in hatred, mixed chaotically, meant to soil her, to mark her, like a dog’s urine?” At the end of the novel, Lucy is resigned to marrying her neighbour for protection. “Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept”, she says. “To start at ground level. With nothing. Not with nothing but. With nothing. No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity.” “Like a dog”, her father suggests. “Yes,” she agrees, “like a dog.”

The memoir-novel Youth (2002) follows the young Coetzee from South Africa to grim, rainy London, where “each day the city chastens him, chastises him; like a beaten dog he is learning”. Summertime (2009) wrong-footed readers expecting a straight continuation of Youth’s lightly fictionalized autobiography: it purports to be written after Coetzee’s death, and consists largely of interviews with people who knew him. These people may or may not have real-life counterparts. One of them, Adriana, is a Brazilian dancer who disliked Coetzee for falling obsessively in love with her. The interviewer describes Coetzee to Adriana as “dogged … like a bulldog that grips you with his teeth and does not let go”. “If you say so, then I must believe you”, replies Adriana. “But being like a dog – is that admirable, in English?”

In the work of another writer, all these dogs might signify inattention, a slapdash prose style. In Coetzee’s novels, “like a dog” is pregnant with a litter of competing meanings. Not that everything in his work is carefully considered. There are plenty of stony faces, hawk-like eyes, sinking hearts, cold shivers. Everyone acknowledges the quotidian texture of his prose. Some people hate it: for Martin Amis, commenting in an interview in 2010 at the New Yorker Festival, Coetzee’s “whole style is predicated on transmitting absolutely no pleasure … he’s got no talent at all”. For others, the prose is commendably functional, never getting in the way of the ideas. And if a dog comes along you should prick up your ears and pay attention. Certain motifs, certain arguments, are threaded all the way through his work. Passionless men. Old men. Burial. Animals. Authorship. Hunger. Take a card, any card, and watch it magically appear in book after book after book.

Coetzee’s network of meanings is so intricately repetitive you reach the point where almost every sentence can be read as a microcosm of the whole oeuvre. The post-Nobel prize period, from 2003, is said to represent a falling off for the casual reader, but the late novels are a scholar’s dream, precisely because of their opacity, their exponential proliferation of meanings. You can go symbol-hunting; you can read him as allegory; you can read him as anti-allegory. Everything that can be argued can be counter-argued in another journal article, another critical study. It’s a guaranteed route to posterity: if your file can’t be closed, then you’ll never really die.

But it’s a fallacy to equate this efflorescence of secondary material with literary merit. Most writing about Coetzee is concerned with him philosophically, not aesthetically. This is especially true of the trilogy, which consists of three of the most difficult novels of the past decade: The Childhood of Jesus (TLS, March 22, 2013), The Schooldays of Jesus (TLS, September 2, 2016) and now The Death of Jesus.

I should say straight out that I don’t fully understand these books; I suspect they require years, not months, of reflection and re-reading. I have some theories, but none of them fits perfectly. I’m not even sure there’s meant to be a perfect fit. At the start of the trilogy, a boy and a man arrive in a Spanish-speaking, socialist-seeming city called Novilla. They have come on a boat and they can’t remember anything about their pasts. They are assigned names and ages: David is five, Simón is forty-five. There is a mildly Kafkaesque kerfuffle over where they’re going to live. The person with the key to their room cannot be found. Simón asks if perhaps there’s a “llave universal” – a universal key – that would work. The woman he is speaking to corrects his Spanish; the term he wants is “master key”: “Llave maestra. There is no such thing as a llave universal. If we had a llave universal all our troubles would be over”.

A cautionary joke, perhaps, at the expense of the reader? I did briefly wonder whether the whole trilogy was Coetzee having a laugh, but on the strength of his other work that seems out of character, despite the critic Anthony Cummins’s pronouncement that the first book is “a dark comedy” (I’m suspicious, too, of anyone who claims to find Kafka really funny). So what is it actually like to read these books? Having just done so for the first time, in relatively quick succession, my initial reaction was relief: from the baffling summaries in various reviews, I was expecting a slog. In fact the story as a whole slips along quite easily, which is an impressive feat given how little sense it makes.

Simón and David look for a mother for David, settling on a woman called Inés; although there’s no proof that she is related to David, Inés willingly takes on the role. Simón goes to work as a stevedore. David has trouble fitting in at school; he struggles, in particular, with numbers. “Put two apples before him. What does he see? An apple and an apple: not two apples, not the same apple twice, just an apple and an apple.” The state wants to send him away to a school for children “who won’t obey the rules for addition and subtraction laid down by their class teacher. The man-made rules. Two plus two equalling four and so forth”.

Simón and Inés decide to evade the authorities and take David to a different city, Estrella. This is where The Schooldays of Jesus begins. In Estrella David is enrolled at Señor Arroyo’s Academy of Dance, where he is taught by the beautiful Ana Magdalena. She explains to the parents that their understanding of numbers is incomplete. “The numbers you have in mind, the numbers we use when we buy and sell, are not true numbers but simulacra. They are what I call ant numbers.” She teaches the children to dance in order to “call the numbers down from where they live among the aloof stars”.

The reader – who can’t experience this transcendental dancing – is in a similar position to the phlegmatic Simón. He can see that David dances beautifully, but he can’t “see numbers” in the dance. “It’s a failing on my part”, he admits. “I see only what is before my eyes … I stumble along behind, hoping for the day to come when my eyes will be opened and I will behold the world as it really is, including the numbers in all their glory, Two and Three and the rest of them.”

Towards the end of Schooldays, Ana Magdalena is murdered by her obsessive lover, a museum guard called Dmitri who is friendly with several of the children at the Academy, including David. Dmitri’s passion highlights Simón’s typical Coetzeean aridity, as well as the shortcomings of the legal system. “What we lack is some understanding of why you committed this senseless, gratuitous act”, Dmitri is told by the court. Dmitri can’t explain himself and he doesn’t want to. The court needs a reason for his behaviour, ideally mental instability. David, who sees things differently, becomes a saviour figure for Dmitri. “You took one look at me and understood me at once”, Dmitri tells him, gratefully. “I understand you and I don’t forgive you. I’ll never forget that.”

Every reviewer of the first two books had a different take on what they might mean. The best explanation I read was Leo Robson’s in the TLS. Robson cleverly drew our attention to Coetzee’s comments on the 2008 financial crisis – which he described as conceptual in origin, forged in the “quantificatory spirit” – finding in them the genesis of this fictional world where numbers have both functional and mystical roles to play.


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