J.M. Coetzee’s ‘In The Heart of the Country’ and Authorial Sadism

There is some PhD perhaps yet to be written on the nature of the cruelty that authors tend to visit upon their characters. I am thinking here of Thomas Hardy’s treatment of Jude Fawley in Jude the Obscure. The reason for the trials that the generally well-intentioned and benign Jude is put through by Hardy can be difficult to conceive of and if one didn’t have enough reason to do so already, would make one sympathise with Hardy’s wife. One thinks also James Joyce’s decision to grant his Dubliners the kind of autumnal vision that allows one to perceive one’s ridiculous tininess in the face of an apparently apathetic universe.

Samuel Beckett always speaks of his characters as ‘creatures’ in his letters and seems to have some fondness for them, calling Molloy ‘poor old Molloy’ on more than one occasion. Of course, this general fellow feeling is never enough for Beckett to allow Molloy to figure out who he is or where he is going or why, but then I suppose that would defeat the purpose of having written a novel about him.

Another relevant text in this context is J.M. Coetzee’s In The Heart of the Country. Coetzee wrote his masters thesis on a stylostatistical analysis of Samuel Beckett (great minds and all that) and his novels bear his influence. However, Coetzee makes an important departure.

It may be controversial to state this unequivocally, but it is fairly clear that Beckett’s characters exist for the most part in an Irish milieu, their language and sense of cultural norms bear the mark of this, at least in English translation. While Coetzee’s characters in In the Heart of the Country are definitely South African, they lack the kind of enabling sense of identity that this more secure national framework can sometimes provide. However, they still exist in South Africa, it is just the mythic arc that allows existence to in some way make sense that has been removed, leaving his characters to float in a yawning vacuity of nationlessness, in a domestic sphere that really is in need of something else beyond it.  This forces the protagonist, Magda to take action. As she says: “I make it all up in order that it shall make me up.”

Magda is a woman living with her father on the frontier of the veld. She is most likely, simply bored with her life and begins committing her rage-induced fantasies of murder and sex to paper, though she may equally be the murderer that she describes herself as being. The only problem with this is that one has to choose one among five of the differing accounts she gives of murdering her father and, occasionally, his lover, who may or may not exist.

Most of the novel is concerned with Magda’s profound inability to relate, to understand others, to adequately situate herself in relation to alterity. Her relationship with her father seems to cause her the most amount of angst, as was mentioned before, she spends an awful lot of time mulling his demise, but she is equally distressed by her inability to understand the native South African servants living in her home, Hendrik and Klein-Anna. They barely converse with one another, lacking an individuality to justify their nature as individuals. They are, to adapt a phrase from James Wood, neurasthenic clown actors in history’s ambien influenced nightmare without their scripts.

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