"At heart he is not a novelist after all, they say, but a pedant who dabbles in fiction. And I have reached a stage in my life when I begin to wonder whether they are not right."
The above is from the book, a reflection made by Coetzee about his hero, a man called JC.
They are not right. This is the voice of an experienced and wise novelist who knows exactly what he is doing and does it brilliantly.
JC is a seventy-two year old man, living in Australia, contributing chapters to a commissioned book of essays called Strong Opinions. Essentially all the opinions expressed deal with power, the meaning of power and of its immoral uses in our world; the meaning of an ethical life. The form of the book is curious and innovative since it allows the author to speak in three voices simultaneously: the upper third of the page is in the voice of the author, the second third speaks with the voice of a young woman whom JC met in the laundry room of his building and whom he persuaded to act as his secretary while trying to finish the book. The third section is given over to a conversation between Anya the woman and her suspicious boyfriend, Alan, a believer in market values as the only criteria worth applying to life's questions. This arrangement allows our author to raise other questions than the ones that are of personal concern to him.
There is so much to say about this book. My first response to Coetzee is that here, again (after reading the last Roth novel) we have the story of an ageing novelist who is aware of his impotence and who insists on confronting not only his own lack of virility but also testing himself through a relationship which appears to threaten the potent lover of that same woman. This was, similarly, the central theme of Roth’s book I reviewed here last week.
Coetzee, the white man from South Africa, homeless, choosing to live in Australia away from his known world; Roth the Jew from New Jersey living in Protestant New England on a mountain top: two old men consumed by anger and regret for the privileges of youth.
There the comparison ends. In Coetzee’s book every page is important. Every page has at least one sentence, one paragraph, one thought, needing your full attention. His observations on power, on the politics of apartheid, “all of this was done in the name of a struggle against terror. I used to think that the people who created these laws that effectively suspended the rule of law were moral barbarians. Now I know that they were just pioneers, ahead of their time.”; on literature, on the meaning of language, on the origins of the state…I can go on; I would like to quote at least twenty passages, but I know that you just want the flavor of the book so as to decide if you want to read it. Well, this is a great book. This will become a classic. This is a book you will want to re-read, to own and to give to other thoughtful readers.