restricted access A Story of South Africa: J.M. Coetzee's Fiction in Context (review)
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Reviewed by
Susan VanZanten Gallagher. A Story of South Africa: J.M. Coetzee's Fiction in Context. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991. 270 pp. $29.95.

Gallagher's book, the third on Coetzee's fiction and the first to investigate its South African literary and historical contexts in any detailed and systematic way, is an invaluable mine of research which should become the standard contextual study of Coetzee's writing for some time to come.

After devoting two brilliantly lucid chapters to Afrikaner society's embattled national myths and authoritarian modes of literary discourse, and to the hermeneutic dilemmas forced upon the contemporary South African writer by the language of apartheid, Gallagher proceeds to explore the contemporary historical backgrounds to and literary models for each of Coetzee's novels. The twin narratives of Dusklands are traced to America's dehumanizing television coverage of the Vietnam war, particularly the displaced aggression and camera-eye sadism of the distanced documentary, and to the eighteenth-century Afrikaner expeditionary narrative which effects a similarly dualistic and ultimately solipsistic separation of imperial self and colonial Other. Coetzee's warning against the colonizing dangers of all discourse singles out settler-narrative realism, the deconstruction of which is itself a decolonizing act.

In the Heart of the Country is seen to evoke, and to rewrite, an epoch of South African history notable for the formation of authoritarian and patriarchal notions of Afrikaner national identity, while carefully omitting the two central events (the Great Trek and the Anglo-Boer War) around which Afrikaners have constructed their national mythology. The novel's anti-pastoral writes back to the plaasroman or farm novel, specifically to its iconography of woman as mother-martyr and sustainer of racial purity, and to its fantasy of paternal land owner, supportive wife and mother, and grateful Africans all bound together by a mystique of earth. Though its iconoclastic spinster-heroine remains hidebound by the racist discourse she is subverting, she is nevertheless given access by her poststructuralist author to an écriture féminine in which multiple dialogic voices, syntactical dislocation and indeterminate endings contest the monologic, omniscient authority and closure of Afrikaner patriarchal discourse. Waiting for the Barbarians is seen in the context of the growing number of black deaths in custody in the late 1970s and the ineffectuality of the country's magistrates. It poses the dilemma of the writer who cannot remain silent but who is impotently aware of the insidious ways in which the realistic depiction of torture in fiction, in its voyeuristic fascination with the forbidden, may engage in a gratuitous complicity with the oppressor.

Life & Times of Michael K and Age of Iron are placed against the broader canvas of the next decade: guerilla attacks, militarization, the "war against children," [End Page 530] and the mounting sense of apocalypse. It transpires that the dilemma of the white doctor in Michael K, of composing stories for the silenced Other, became acutely relevant to Coetzee's personal situation in 1985, when he was increasingly regarded by the international community as a literary spokesman for a land which the state of emergency had immersed in silence. His quandary is given dramatic expression in the multiform Foe, in which the author, since he cannot speak for the oppressed without becoming a party to their oppression, explicitly questions his right to speak through his own characters. Coetzee's fiction, Gallagher concludes, aspires to transform the history which determines it, to revise the discourses which it is itself written by. Its formal experimentation is thus a profoundly historical act of the ethical imagination.

Derek Wright
Darwin, Australia
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