Wednesday, March 5, 2014

BoyhoodBoyhood by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I find it amazing that there can be so much content in a 166-page book, and that the result is so spellbinding and perfect. J.M. Coetzee's "Boyhood: scenes from provincial life" is a portrait of the author as a 10-year-old boy growing up in South Africa. I have never read a more insightful analysis of a child's thinking and emerging personality; well, it is hard to find this level of psychological profundity in any writing. At the same time, the novel gives an amazingly rich and deep depiction of the South African society, with its class and racial divides.

Mr. Coetzee, in this "fictionalized autobiography" writes about a 10-year-old boy in the third person. The "he" is little John Coetzee, a precocious child, who loves and hates his mother and is ashamed of his father. The author reaches to the deepest and most private layers of a child's psyche, layers that one is usually too embarrassed to get to. One of the magnificent passages describes how the boy creates his first memories (yes, creates and edits them). The essential question are raised: Who am I? Where do I belong? As the author writes: "What he does not yet know is why he is in the world." The boy tries to figure out how the world works - who the good people are. He experiences something almost like the first love, and is fascinated by the beauty and mystery of other children's bodies.

The year is about 1950, just after the United Party's downfall and the ascent of the National Party rule. The boy lives in a society that is racially much more complex than that of the U.S. and probably of most countries in the world. The racial divides are between four distinct groups: the English, the Afrikaners, the "Coloureds", and the "Natives". Mr. Coetzee shows the racial fissures in the South African society sharply yet subtly. So many books in which the well-meaning authors try to present the problems of race on hundreds of crudely written and superficial pages read like predictable sermons. Here, the author writes four sentences about the meaning of the word "mustn't", and these four sentences perceptively convey the nature of racial inequality.

I can pleasantly waste about two hours of my life reading 166 pages of Connelly, Kellerman, or Grafton. I have spent about 12 hours over four days to read 166 pages of "Boyhood". These were some of the best spent 12 hours in my life.

Five stars.

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