Our houseguest, Juan, has given me a book he thinks I should read – Boyhood (1997) by J.M. Coetzee. Because the timeline of the protagonist corresponds with the life of its author, I am uncertain whether it is fiction or non-fiction. The subtitle – Scenes from Provincial Life – suggests the latter.
I do not know enough of Coetzee’s life to know if it is his life I am reading or his protagonist’s. Not that it matters. The book is told in the third-person and focuses on a boy growing up in Worcester, ninety miles from Cape Town, South Africa. I am only on Page 47, but already I am reminded of a book I recommended to Juan some years back – Michel Tournier’s The Ogre (1970).
What both books have in common is the meticulous construction of a subject. But while Tournier’s “ogre” (who grows up to be a fascist) is wrong from the start, there is nothing inhuman about Coetzee’s boy, who, like those around him, is full of recognizable (and therefore forgivable?) contradictions, the same complex of (offsetting?) contradictions, I am supposing, that allowed for the persistence of a class-bound, racially segregated state.
If asked to reduce Boyhood to a single sentence, it would be what the narrator says of the boy’s mixed feelings towards his father: “He does not understand this contradiction, but has no interest in understanding it.” Everyone in this book, to a greater or lesser extent, is contradictory. No one seems to mind, and this is how white South Africa lived with itself.
There is more than a hint of social psychological accounting in the other Coetzee book I read, Disgrace (1999). This one, so far, has more of it.