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  • Black Earth, White Myth:Coetzee's Michael K
  • Derek Wright (bio)

Ideas about earth and the land have been enduring preoccupations in white South African literature, usually in the form of expropriative territorial mythologies or mystiques which automatically exclude the non-Afrikaner. The Afrikaner writer, notes Breyton Breytenbach, has a tendency to mythologize landscape through "passionate and mystical descriptions of flatland and hillock" whereas for his black African counter-part the land is simply there and is taken much for granted (208). In the long first part of J. M. Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K (1983) there is a curious passage in which the white South African writer is discovered trying to imagine what the South African black himself imagines to be the Afrikaner heritage, a heritage presented here in terms of landscape and silence: [End Page 435]

He filled his beret with more of the feed, thinking: At last I am living off the land. Sometimes the only sound he could hear was that of his trouser-legs whipping together. From horizon to horizon the landscape was empty. He climbed a hill and lay on his back listening to the silence. . . . I could live here forever, he thought, or till I die. Nothing would happen, every day would be the same as the day before, there would be nothing to say. . . . He could understand that people should have retreated here and fenced themselves in with miles and miles of silence; he could understand that they should have wanted to bequeath the privilege of so much silence to their children and grandchildren in perpetuity (though by what right he was not sure).


Momentarily, Michael achieves the Afrikaner's dubiously authorized pastoral ideal of "living off the land" and (almost perversely, since he is one of its dispossessed victims) sympathizes with his pursuit of silence.

The difference is that he has none of the Afrikaner's need to affirm his puny presence in this landscape: for him, the topography lends itself to no myths, offers no mystical bond or blood-intimacy, and altogether lacks humanizing dimensions, being not merely silent but empty—a place where nothing happens. Coetzee's Cape gardener, faced with the harsh, inhospitable earthscapes of the Karoo, finds himself perfectly at home with their refusal of human meanings, their preverbal nothingness, and feels himself assuming the character of the bare mineral scrubland: "I am becoming smaller and harder and drier every day" (93). But the ecstasies afforded at the extremity of this "arid landscape that tilted and threatened to tip him over its edge" (78) are ecstasies of vacancy and negation, in which faint echoes of Wordsworth's anthropomorphic scenery are quickly dispersed into the brooding nullity:

Even on the stillest of days no sound reached him save the scurrying of insects across the ground, and the buzz of the flies that had not forgotten him, and the pulse of blood in his ears. . . . There was nothing to look forward to but the sight, every morning, of the shadow of the rim of the mountain chasing faster and faster toward him till all of a sudden he was bathed in sunlight. He would sit or lie in a stupor at the mouth of the cave, too tired to move or perhaps too lackadaisical . . . he sometimes locked his fingers behind his head, closed his eyes, and emptied his mind, wanting nothing, looking forward to nothing.

(91, 93, 94)

Language exists at a tangent both to this minimalist landscape and to its occupant: K's pursuit of silence, paradoxically rendered into rhetoric by his white-Afrikaner author, is a nonverbal one. Almost inarticulate as a result of his harelip, he lives in terror of a life spent with people and in language, and at one point envisages himself as an earth-hole into which words disappear: "Always, when he tried to explain himself to himself, there remained a gap, a hole, a darkness before which his understanding baulked, into which it was useless to pour words. The words were eaten up, the gap remained" (150-151).

And yet, in this first attempt by Coetzee at a non-white perspective, the ruling metaphysic and mythology are still...


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pp. 435-444
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