Dusklands by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
J.M. Coetzee's first book, "Dusklands", is the fifth I have read by this author. To me, it is the weakest of the five, but the term "weakest" means "less excellent" (or "not as obviously outstanding"). It does not have the crystalline clarity and wisdom of "Disgrace" or "Waiting for the Barbarians", and it does not quite reach the depth and beauty of "Boyhood" or "Youth". It is still better than 99% of fiction out there, though.
The book is comprised of two separate short novellas, "The Vietnam Project" and "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee". In the former, the narrator is a researcher working on a report about the effectiveness of psychological warfare against the North during the Vietnam War in the 1970's. The researcher's supervisor is a Mr. Coetzee. The plot of the latter novella takes place in 1760's, when Jacobus Coetzee, a South African farmer, an explorer, and elephant hunter, embarks on an expedition to Namaqua to trade with the local tribe of Hottentot (now called Khoikhoi) people.
One obviously looks for a common denominator in two novellas. So-called professional reviewers point out the theme of colonialism: the European colonization of South Africa in the 1600-1700's is compared to U.S. attempts to prevail in the Vietnam war. I think the colonialism connection is tenuous. The only connection I can see is that of a "superior culture" destroying (or attempting to destroy) another culture. The first story, to me, is about one man's descent into madness. Whether his madness is caused by issues related to Vietnam war is a matter of interpretation. In fact, I much prefer the first novella because of its obliqueness. The second story is too direct; it is told in a straightforward fashion, yet it is quite hard to read because of passages that describe unspeakable atrocities people commit against each other.
People do not only kill people. Jacobus Coetzee kills wild animals to feel alive. His is also a "tireless enterprise of turning the wild into orchard and farm." The business aspect is particularly repulsive. Not only "the savage must clothe his nakedness and till the Earth because Manchester exports cotton drawers and Birmingham ploughshares", but the "savages" are exterminated en masse so that the business can flourish. The author also addresses one of the topics that he is most sensitive about (recall dramatic fragments from "Disgrace"): the topic of animal suffering. The killings of animals shown in "Dusklands" are cruel, prolonged, unimaginably painful, and graphically portrayed.
Even in his first work, J.M. Coetzee proves that he is an absolute master of prose and style. On the pages of "Dusklands", in addition to all the cruelty, one can find passages of sublime beauty, like the dream scenes and the "forking paths of the endless inner adventure" monologue. The fragment of the report that presents mathematics of bombing is hysterically funny.
Do not read “Dusklands” if you look for uplifting, positive themes in literature. However, if you tend to agree that the emergence of human race is one of the worst plagues that have happened to Earth, this book is perfect for you.
Three and three quarters stars.
View all my reviews