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Reviewed by:
  • J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing, and: Betrayals of the Body Politic: The Literary Commitments of Nadine Gordimer
  • Chris Bongie
David Attwell. J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993. 147 pp. $32.50 cloth, $15.00 paper.
Andrew Vogel Ettin. Betrayals of the Body Politic: The Literary Commitments of Nadine Gordimer. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1993. 150 pp. $26.50.

Towards the end of his most politically explicit novel Age of Iron (1990), J. M. Coetzee has his main protagonist—a classicist by the name of E. Curren, who is dying of cancer whilst her country sinks deeper into the violent turmoil that resulted in/from the imposition in 1985 of a national State of Emergency—reflect that her Cape Town house has become a tomb, "a late bourgeois tomb." This sly nod in the direction of one of Nadine Gordimer's better known novels, The Late Bourgeois World (1966), establishes an intertextual connection between South Africa's two most prominent living novelists that serves several purposes. Most obviously, it points toward both a similarity and a difference in the approaches of these two writers: on the one hand, it signals their common use of the topos of dwelling places (that is, the house/tomb) as a way of exploring the problem of "(un)homeliness"—in Homi Bhabha's words—that is such a pressing concern for the (white) South African writer; on the other, it leaves us to reflect upon their differing treatments of history, given the uneasiness with which Coetzee has always greeted the sort of periodizations upon which Gordimer has in turn so often insisted (for example, the late bourgeois). Less obviously, but perhaps more importantly, Coetzee's allusion to Gordimer emphasizes the extent to which the "tomb" that E. Curren inhabits is not just her house but the words themselves—words that have by now taken on the nature of a well-worn cliché. His protagonist is condemned to using, and to living within, a language that has outlived itself—one that is clearly inadequate to the events that she is living through (much less to those that will have followed upon them after Mandela's release from prison in 1990 and the ANC's recent electoral victory). What is it, Coetzee asks in this novel, to live within the limits of such clichés, to remain subject to them, and (how) can we live with-out them? This question lies at the very heart of the paradoxically "colonial postcolonialism"—in Attwell's words—that is twentieth-century (white) writing in South Africa; as but the latest (the last?) in a line of such writers, Coetzee and Gordimer have posed this question time and again, taking it upon themselves to recite along with E. Curren lines from a script in which they remain dutifully trapped and that a truly post-colonial South African literature will have (or so the cliché goes) finally outlived.

The profoundly "clichéd" nature of Coetzee's allusion to Gordimer also raises the issue of how the signifiers "Gordimer" and "Coetzee" have, notwithstanding the impressive diversity of their oeuvres, themselves become [End Page 185] convenient and, indeed, obligatory points of reference for critics wishing to sum up the (white) South African literary scene: a realist Gordimer committed to social agendas and historical representations is pitted against a postmodernist Coetzee entranced with ahistorical or dehistoricizing allegories; the card-carrying member of the ANC is opposed to the disengaged academic: and so on. Such extremely well-rehearsed clichés have, in turn, inevitably provoked their mirror-images, and it is in this spirit of counter-cliché that both books under review here have been written—the one insisting on the "universality" of Gordimer's work, the other "continually reading [Coetzee's] novels back into their context" in the name of "the historicity of the act of storytelling."

Both Coetzee and Gordimer have received ample attention over the last five to ten years, not only in the form of articles but also in book-length monographs, so the question that must be asked of Attwell and Ettin's new books...


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