Book review: Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life

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Dear Dad

JM Coetzee — born in 1940, in Cape Town, South Africa — won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003 and was twice awarded the Booker Prize: for Life and Times of Michael K in 1983 and Disgrace in 1999.

His Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life offers a precious insight into the inner universe of the fiercely private writer and author of 12 novels and three fictional memoirs, of which the third volume, Summertime, almost made him a three-time winner of the Booker award.

Set in Worcester, a city 90 miles from Cape Town, the first volume of his fictionalised autobiography chronicles the writer’s early life in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Sons of an attorney and his wife, Coetzee and his younger brother are of Afrikaner descent: their father was of Dutch ancestry while their schoolteacher mother was of Polish heritage.

Written in a third-person voice and in present tense — hence a dispassionate perspective with a stirring sense of immediate urgency — this memoir is an unflinchingly honest account in which the young Coetzee is portrayed as self-centred, cruel and riddled with contradictions. While he is roguishly selfish of his mother’s love, the boy is derisive in his treatment of her, unyielding in his effort to pull away from the woman he calls ‘Dinny’ rather than ‘mother’ or ‘mum’. Although he detests his father and despises his benighted ways, the socially conscious child approves of his appearance and basks in whatever honour his father might bring for him among his friends.

The novelist’s typical probing of his imaginary characters’ visceral thoughts is a quality well practised in his tender years. Here, intimacy with his own consciousness yields revelations of constant shame and shame is what reverberates throughout this narrative. Not only does the young Coetzee shudder in fear of being caned in school to avoid what he perceives as crippling shame, he is shameful of this fear, shameful of the family that has nurtured this fear, and of his “unnatural” (if idolised) upbringing in that family. He finds shame both in situations that are astonishingly mature such as “the crudeness with which [his mother] talks about money” and in others that are mundane and juvenile such as a “fresh haircut” or baring his feet.

Influenced by his voracious appetite for stories and books, Coetzee displays an early writerly imagination. With relish, he embellishes his first memory of seeing a howling dog dragging its broken hindlegs across a street into a full-blown dramatic account. And in parsing the word perversion, he meditates on the “enigmatic p…tumbling via the ruthless r to the vengeful v” as he darkly acknowledges his sexual desires.

Like any boy struggling with puberty, he feels awfully alone and guilty in his erotic reveries that comprise “honey-tan legs of boys with blond hair” and “marble sculptures [of] naked men and women with wisps of cloth around their middles.”

Through his young but implacable eye for the nuances of human behaviour, the reader glimpses at South African life under apartheid rule. The young Coetzee is embarrassed when he is treated with white privilege; he accords proper respect to the oft-ridiculed Afrikaans language and is relieved when his mother shows admiration for the Natives and the Coloured people. In the same way that he empathises with the widely distrusted Jews, is ready to defend a schoolfriend Theo who is unpopular because his affluence arouses jealousy, and indeed sympathises with sheep awaiting slaughter at the family farm, Coetzee is keenly aware of injustices suffered by the non-White community.

Nevertheless, he cannot bear the thought of being an Afrikaans boy himself and is mostly on the side of the English race — less for jingoistic inclinations than for his own vested interests and discrimination against anything physically “ugly”. Rather than favouring the Boers in the Boer War, he chooses to dislike them for their “long beards and ugly clothes” and shares his father’s lament for the defeat of the United Party in 1948 because the Nationalists banned all his favourite comics and robbed his father of a high profile job.

This pithy memoir is littered with reasons behind his many novels’ various imaginings. Having himself experienced the brutality of Afrikaans — one boy forces a live caterpillar into his mouth — and following what he sees as Afrikaan vindictiveness in teacher Miss Oosthuizen’s caning of a white pupil, Coetzee becomes wary of their capacity for revenge. When Coloured houseboy Eddie  — and Coetzee’s playmate — is flogged with a leather strap for misbehaving then sent away, “one thing [Coetzee] knows for sure: Eddie will have no pity on him.” The fate of Lurie’s daughter in Disgrace seems like the obvious consequence in post-apartheid rule.

Still, Boyhood is a childhood recollection after all. Despite his misery in Worcester where growing up is “a time of gritting the teeth and enduring” and subsequent economic hardship in Cape Town where his father buries them under a mountain of debt, there are occasional scenes of care-free joy. Apart from reading and listening to old family stories, cricket and cycling, his greatest affection is no doubt for his late paternal grandfather’s sprawling farm: Voelfontein. His love for his “two mothers”: “of woman” and “of farm” — each a betrayal of the other — is a record that is as complex as it is heartwarming.

In the end, however, this is a heavy portrait of a childhood burdened not so much by solipsism than by the acknowledgement of this solipsism. It is weighed down not by knowing he is special but by knowing he is unworthy of being special — the knowing that he has “a heart of stone”.

“So young and yet you know so much. How are you ever going to keep it all in your head?” says his grand-aunt Annie. Well, thankfully for us, he is not going to keep it all in his head. Instead, he is sharing it with the reading public — through his writing: writing that is dark, that “once it began to flow from his pen, would spread across the page out of control, like spilt ink.”