LONGLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2016.
When you travel across the ocean on a boat, all your memories are washed away and you start a completely new life. That is how it is. There is no before. There is no history. The boat docks at the harbour and we climb down the gangplank and we are plunged into the here and now. Time begins.
Davíd is the small boy who is always asking questions. Simón and Inés take care of him in their new town Estrella. He is learning the language; he has begun to make friends. He has the big dog Bolívar to watch over him. But he'll be seven soon and he should be at school. And so, Davíd is enrolled in the Academy of Dance. It's here, in his new golden dancing slippers, that he learns how to call down the numbers from the sky. But it's here too that he will make troubling discoveries about what grown-ups are capable of.
In this mesmerising allegorical tale, Coetzee deftly grapples with the big questions of growing up, of what it means to be a parent, the constant battle between intellect and emotion, and how we choose to live our lives.
After crossing oceans, a man and a boy arrive in a new land. Here they are each assigned a name and an age, and held in a camp in the desert while they learn Spanish, the language of their new country. As Simón and David they make their way to the relocation centre in the city of Novilla, where officialdom treats them politely but not necessarily helpfully.
Simón finds a job in a grain wharf. The work is unfamiliar and backbreaking, but he soon warms to his stevedore comrades, who during breaks conduct philosophical dialogues on the dignity of labour, and generally take him to their hearts.
Now he must set about his task of locating the boy’s mother. Though like everyone else who arrives in this new country he seems to be washed clean of all traces of memory, he is convinced he will know her when he sees her. And indeed, while walking with the boy in the countryside Simón catches sight of a woman he is certain is the mother, and persuades her to assume the role.
David's new mother comes to realise that he is an exceptional child, a bright, dreamy boy with highly unusual ideas about the world. But the school authorities detect a rebellious streak in him and insist he be sent to a special school far away. His mother refuses to yield him up, and it is Simón who must drive the car as the trio flees across the mountains.
THE CHILDHOOD OF JESUS is a profound, beautiful and continually surprising novel from a very great writer.
Genre: Science, Education
The idea of human cruelty to animals so consumes novelist Elizabeth Costello in her later years that she can no longer look another person in the eye: humans, especially meat-eating ones, seem to her to be conspirators in a crime of stupefying magnitude taking place on farms and in slaughterhouses, factories, and laboratories across the world.
Costello’s son, a physics professor, admires her literary achievements, but dreads his mother’s lecturing on animal rights at the college where he teaches. His colleagues resist her argument that human reason is overrated and that the inability to reason does not diminish the value of life; his wife denounces his mother’s vegetarianism as a form of moral superiority.
At the dinner that follows her first lecture, the guests confront Costello with a range of sympathetic and skeptical reactions to issues of animal rights, touching on broad philosophical, anthropological, and religious perspectives. Painfully for her son, Elizabeth Costello seems offensive and flaky, but—dare he admit it?—strangely on target.
Here the internationally renowned writer J. M. Coetzee uses fiction to present a powerfully moving discussion of animal rights in all their complexity. He draws us into Elizabeth Costello’s own sense of mortality, her compassion for animals, and her alienation from humans, even from her own family. In his fable, presented as a Tanner Lecture sponsored by the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, Coetzee immerses us in a drama reflecting the real-life situation at hand: a writer delivering a lecture on an emotionally charged issue at a prestigious university. Literature, philosophy, performance, and deep human conviction—Coetzee brings all these elements into play.
As in the story of Elizabeth Costello, the Tanner Lecture is followed by responses treating the reader to a variety of perspectives, delivered by leading thinkers in different fields. Coetzee’s text is accompanied by an introduction by political philosopher Amy Gutmann and responsive essays by religion scholar Wendy Doniger, primatologist Barbara Smuts, literary theorist Marjorie Garber, and moral philosopher Peter Singer, author of Together the lecture-fable and the essays explore the palpable social consequences of uncompromising moral conflict and confrontation.
One of the two books that J. M. Coetzee won the Booker Prize for (he was also awarded the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature), The Life and Times of Michael K. is the story of a simple man attempting to survive (from without) in a society that has seen its humanity perverted by war into horror. He is trying only to live in quiet absence and is senselessly thwarted at every turn. Like all of the rest of Coetzee's work, Life and Times is something more than shattering, more than moving.
In a south Africa turned by war, Michael K. sets out to take his ailing mother back to her rural home. On the way there she dies, leaving him alone in an anarchic world of brutal roving armies. Imprisoned, Michael is unable to bear confinement and escapes, determined to live with dignity. This life affirming novel goes to the center of human experience-the need for an interior, spiritual life; for some connections to the world in which we live; and for purity of vision.
From Publishers Weekly
Harsh, unflinching and powerful, Coetzee's (Waiting for the Barbarians) new novel is a cry of moral outrage at the legacy that apartheid has created in South Africa. In scenes of stunning ferocity, he depicts the unequal warfare waging between the two races, a conflict in which the balance of power is slowly shifting. An elderly woman's letters to her daughter in America make up the narrative. Near death from rapidly advancing cancer, Cape Town resident Mrs. Curren is a retired university professor and political liberal who has always considered herself a "good person" in deploring the government's obfuscatory and brutal policies, though she has been insulated from the barbarism they produce. When the teenage son of her housekeeper is murdered by the police and his activist friend is also shot by security forces, Mrs. Curren realizes that "now my eyes are open and I can never close them again." The only person to whom she can communicate her anguished feelings of futility and waste is an alcoholic derelict whom she prevails on to be her messenger after her death, by mailing the packet of her letters to her daughter. In them she records the rising tide of militancy among young blacks; brave, defiant and vengeful, they are a generation whose hearts have turned to iron. His metaphors in service to a story that moves with the implacability of a nightmare, Coetzee's own urgent message has never been so cogently delivered.
From Library Journal
This is the South African novelist's most direct indictment of apartheid yet. It takes the form of a letter-diary from Mrs. Curren, a former classics professor dying of cancer, to her daughter in America. She details a series of strange events that turn her protected middle-class life upside down. A homeless alcoholic appears at her door, eventually becoming her companion and confessor. Her liberal sentiments and her very humanity are tested as she experiences directly the horrors of apartheid. She comes to recognize South Africa as a country in which the rigidity of both sides has led to barbarism and to acknowledge her complicity in upholding the system. Less allegorical than Coetzee's previous novels, this is still richly metaphoric. A brilliant, chilling look at the spiritual costs of apartheid. Recommended.
"[A] distinguished piece of fiction…[Its] power of historical immediacy gives the novel its thrust, its larger and, if you wish, 'universal' value." The New York Times
"I have known few authors who can evoke such a wilderness in the heart of man. He is an artist of a weight and depth that put him beyond ordinary comparisons…Coetzee knows the elusive terror of Kafka." Bernard Levin, Sunday Times (London)
"The novel moves between claustrophobic enclosures and arid, exquisitely rendered open spaces that reveal treacherous trap-doors…The book keeps us on edge, uneasy." Walter Clemons, Newsweek
"The book makes for compelling reading, largely due to the successful use of the present tense throughout and the vivid presentation of unfolding events." World Literature Today
Moving and powerful, this book presents the dark tale of an aging magistrate in an African frontier settlement, who finds himself becoming increasingly sympathetic toward the indigenous "barbarians" that the colonial empire's forces brutalize.
For decades the Magistrate has been a loyal servant of the Empire, running the affairs of a tiny frontier settlement and ignoring the impending war with the barbarians. When interrogation experts arrive, however, he witnesses the Empire's cruel and unjust treatment of prisoners of war. Jolted into sympathy for their victims, he commits a quixotic act of rebellion that brands him an enemy of the state.
J. M. Coetzee's prize-winning novel is a startling allegory of the war between opressor and opressed. The Magistrate is not simply a man living through a crisis of conscience in an obscure place in remote times; his situation is that of all men living in unbearable complicity with regimes that ignore justice and decency.
For South African writer J.M. Coetzee, winner of two Booker Prizes and the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature, the world of receiving literary awards and giving speeches must be such a commonplace that he has put the circuit at the center of his book, Elizabeth Costello. As the work opens, in fact, the eponymous Elizabeth, a fictional novelist, is in Williamstown, Pennsylvania, to receive the Stowe Award. For her speech at the Williamstown's Altona College she chooses the tired topic, "What Is Realism?" and quickly loses her audience in her unfocused discussion of Kafka. From there, readers follow her to a cruise ship where she is virtually imprisoned as a celebrity lecturer to the ship's guests. Next, she is off to Appleton College where she delivers the annual Gates Lecture. Later, she will even attend a graduation speech.
Coetzee has made this project difficult for himself. Occasional writing-writing that includes graduation speeches, acceptance speeches, or even academic lectures-is a less than auspicious form around which to build a long work of fiction. A powerful central character engaged in a challenging stage of life might sustain such a work. Yet, at the start, Coetzee declares that Elizabeth is "old and tired," and her best book, The House on Eccles Street is long in her past. Elizabeth Costello lacks a progressive plot and offers little development over the course of each new performance at the lectern. Readers are given Elizabeth fully formed with only brief glimpses of her past sexual dalliances and literary efforts.
In the end, Elizabeth Costello seems undecided about its own direction. When Elizabeth is brought to a final reckoning at the gates of the afterlife, she begins to suspect that she is actually in hell, "or at least purgatory: a purgatory of clichés." Perhaps Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello, which can be read as an extended critique of clichéd writing, is a portrait of this purgatory. While some readers may find Coetzee's philosophical prose sustenance enough on the journey, some will turn back at the gate. -Patrick O'Kelley
From Publishers Weekly
Even more uncompromising than usual, this latest novel by Coetzee (his first since 1999's Booker Prize-winning Disgrace) blurs the bounds of fiction and nonfiction while furthering the author's exploration of urgent moral and aesthetic questions. Elizabeth Costello, a fictional aging Australian novelist who gained fame for a Ulysses-inspired novel in the 1960s, reveals the workings of her still-formidable mind in a series of formal addresses she either attends or delivers herself (an award acceptance speech, a lecture on a cruise ship, a graduation speech). This ingenious structure allows Coetzee to circle around his protagonist, revealing her preoccupations and contradictions her relationships with her son, John, an academic, and her sister, Blanche, a missionary in Africa; her deep, almost fanatical concern with animal rights; her conflicted views on reason and realism; her grapplings with the human problems of sex and spirituality. The specters of the Holocaust and colonialism, of Greek mythology and Christian morality, and of Franz Kafka and the absurd haunt the novel, as Coetzee deftly weaves the intense contemplation of abstractions with the everyday life of an all-too-human body and mind. The struggle for self-expression comes to a wrenching climax when Elizabeth faces a final reckoning and finds herself at a loss for words. This is a novel of weighty ideas, concerned with what it means to be human and with the difficult and seductive task of making meaning. It is a resounding achievement by Coetzee and one that will linger with the reader long after its reverberating conclusion.
One day while cycling along the Magill road in Adelaide Paul Rayment is knocked down by a car, resulting in the amputation of his leg. Humiliated, he retreats to his flat and a succession of day-care nurses. After a series of carers who are either "unsuitable" or just temporary, he happens upon Marijana, with whom he has a European childhood in common: his in France, hers in Croatia. Marijana nurses him tactfully and efficiently, ministering to his new set of needs. His feelings for her soon become deeper and more complex. He attempts to fund her son Drago's passage through college, a move which meets the refusal of her husband, causing a family rift. Drago moves in with Paul, but not before an entirely different complication steps in, in the form of celebrated Australian novelist Elizabeth Costello, who threatens to take over the direction of Paul's life in ways he's not entirely comfortable with.
Slow Man has to get the award for "hardest novel of the year to unwrap", in that it's actually more like three novels layered variously on top of each other, and all in a mere 263 pages! It is also, without doubt, the most challenging novel of the year. Coetzee having won the thing two times already and being a Nobel laureate, it never stood a chance getting to the Booker shortlist, but that doesn't stop it being possibly the best novel of the year by miles.
The start is relatively easy to get to grips with: Paul is knocked from his bike, has his limb removed, and becomes one of those who must submit to being cared for. Just like David Lurie from his Booker-prize-winning Disgrace, Paul stubbornly refuses the aid which could make his life superficially normal, (an artificial limb,) and surrenders himself stubbornly to his incapacity. So begins a novel that seems to be concerning itself with an analysis of the spirit of care and the psychological effect any severe injury (or, symbolically, any obvious difference to others) has on a person when their life is "truncated" so. And it is a superb beginning, too. The first 100 pages are astounding, presented in Coetzee's trademark analytical prose that manages to be both spare and yet busting with riches.
It's complicated a little by the fact that Rayment is clearly a kind of semi alter-ego for Coetzee, who himself is reputed to be very keen on cycling the streets of Adelaide. Coetzee and his protagonist share a similar history, too: divorced Rayment grew up in France and now lives in a quiet lonely flat in Adelaide, where he feels out of place. He has never, he thinks, felt the sense of having a real "home" that many do. South-African born Coetzee's early fiction focused much on the White "place" in South Africa; he escaped to London in his youth, he has since lived out extended Professorships in the USA, and is now based in Adelaide. Coetzee, too, feels this sense of unbelonging that is rife in Paul. Slow Man is almost claustrophobic in its sense of lives ending and purposes coming to a close: living in Australia and with South Africa mostly stable, Coetzee is having to look elsewhere for his fiction. And he seems to be turning the focus largely onto himself. His 2003 novel was a series of vignettes concerning Coetzee's alter-ego, the famed but fictional elderly Australian novelist Elizabeth Costello.
When the woman in question knocks on Paul's door, then, it becomes clear Coetzee has far more on his mind than a mere novel about growing old and out of place and cared for. There are potential problems with what Coetzee's doing here: by self-consciously bringing Costello (himself) in, it can seem as if he doesn't really know what to do with this fiction he's making, doesn't know where to go with it, so brings her in to play some nice metafictional tricks, to talk about writing and character and their relationship to the author ("you came to me", Costello says to Paul.) instead of getting on with the real business at hand. She pushes Paul to become "more of a main character", as if she's uncertain about him but can't entirely control him herself. (Though in the end we realise that everyone can be a main character, however dull they may seem. Because they are not.) It might also seem a little heavy-handed, an obvious and self-consciously clever trick. It might seem like these things, but for Coetzee's absolute skill at weaving his narrative together seamlessly. Costello never does seem out of place, not really. There's an air of mystery to her and her presence, some things that are never quite clear in the reader's head, but Coetzee handles her appearance so smoothly it's almost dreamlike. He stitches her into the book almost flawlessly. Not only that, but she becomes an entire character herself, rich with her own frailties and concerns. He's got himself a brilliant set-up, then: like an illusion you can only fully glimpse the parts of separately, he's managed to give himself a narrative where he give us a novel about Paul, himself, and the act of creating fictions, without any one getting in the way of another, and without the doing so seeming obvious or contrived. It's a rather remarkable achievement.
Not that all this intelligent manipulation comes without problems. The fact that we have two versions (Paul and Elizabeth) of Coetzee almost set-up against one another allows him to explore lots of interesting philosophical problems, but he's doing so much here that these questions often just end up going in circles and knocking off one another. The attrition between the two characters says something vaguely itchy about Coetzee's own feelings about his acts of artistic creation, though the way the two finally seem to make peace with one another in the end is pleasingly conclusive in a novel where the other remaining aspects are resolved rather ambiguously.
Slow Man, his first book since winning the Nobel in 2003, is a novel that consists of a full internal novel and at least one full external one. Childless Paul's legacy remains uncertain (where will his meddling with Marijana's family get him? will he find an heir in Drago, if only symbolically?) but Coetzee's is not: with his beautifully stark prose he has left us unnerving and important pictures of South Africa and what it means to be an outsider, and is now – perhaps uncertainly; it may be this tremulous uncertainty of purpose that is the only slight stain on Slow Man – moving on to new terrain. His body of work is one of the most impressive of any current writer in English. Anyone who wants to know just how much of a transcendent experience fiction can be needs to read his work.