How is the novelist supposed to confine himself to reportage when ‘the of fiction is one of freedom, of irresponsibility, or better, of responsibility toward writing something that has not yet emerged’?
On the other hand, how can an author operating in a highly politicised culture write such stories – write fiction, in short – without seeming to duck the issue?
The argument is complicated by the fact that Coetzee has published a substantial body of criticism, including reviews and essays on censorship, dissent, linguistics and literary culture in South Africa – and more recently, in , on the philosophies of community invoked in the debate on animal rights.
Coetzee is a writer’s writer, a subtle theorist who is also in the business of producing fiction; a novelist who is both a critic and a linguist.
Coetzee’s own style is sometimes parodic, sometimes allegorical.
He has made free use of destabilising narrative devices such as mock appendices and fake forewords, and has a marked taste for open-endedness, sudden authorial interventions and abrupt truncations.
Can such a writer, a self-conscious Post-Modernist, have anything engaging to say about the moral choices thrown up in the transitional societies which are the subject of his fiction? It is a chilling, spare book, the work of a mature writer who has refined his textual obsessions to produce an exact, effective prose and condensed his thematic concern with authority into a deceptively simple story of family life.
More narrowly, can he have anything engaging to say about the moral choices that are part of everyday life in post-apartheid South Africa? Half campus novel, half anti-pastoral, it begins quietly enough in Cape Town.
Coetzee, however, doubts that the sort of literal reflection offered by Gordimer and writers like her tells us anything more real, or more truthful, than a more obviously imaginative approach would.
His expressed preference is for a novel that ‘operates in terms of its own procedures and issues in its own conclusions, not one that operates in terms of the procedures of history and eventuates in conclusions that are checkable by history (as a child’s schoolwork is checked by a schoolmistress)’.