In Heart Of The Country by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
J.M. Coetzee’s novella “In the Heart of the Country” (the US edition, for some obscure business reasons, is titled "From the Heart of the Country") is quite an unusual literary work. It is composed of 266 numbered paragraphs, some of which contain just a few words while others comprise two pages. Mr. Coetzee's writing is not as mathematically precise and economical as in six other books of his that I have read so far. The sentences in this novella are still wonderfully economical and precise, but their sequences are not. The paragraphs flow in a convoluted and hypnotic way; they circle the subject, touch it, and again float away. I do not care much about plots in literature, but some readers may be put off by not knowing whether the events that ostensibly happen in the plot are real or just fabricated by the narrator.
The story is narrated by Magda, a lonely spinster, by her own admission an ugly, old, dried-up virgin, who lives on her father's sheep ranch, in the middle of nowhere, deep in the heart of the country, "where space radiates out of [her] to all the four corners of the earth." Nothing has happened in her life so far. Her mother died a long time ago. Her father dislikes her for not being his son. The only other people on the farm are the "brown-skinned" servants. In her life she has had more contact with insects than with people. Her own thoughts are her only companion, and she is a keen, if a bit hysterical, observer of her thoughts. Her father may have brought himself a young new wife. Or maybe it was his servant, Hendrik, who brought the young woman for himself, and the father sleeps with her. Magda kills her father. Or does she? Quite bizarre events follow, culminating in Magda's memorable conversations in Spanish (which she does not know) with the flying machines.
Many reviewers find various issues and metaphors in the novella: the master-slave relationship, the colonizer vs. the colonized, the racial conflict, etc. I disagree. To me, the novella is a grand exercise in writing. The author sets out to describe how reality is perceived and distorted by an aging, embittered, and extremely lonely woman, who is slowly losing her sanity. Mr. Coetzee spectacularly succeeds in all aspects of the endeavor. Magda's "stream of consciousness" is completely believable (even if the events may not be realistic). I very rarely agree with blurbs on book covers (they are almost always exaggerated and misleading), yet this time one quote is absolutely correct: "The writing and mood are a remarkable piece of sustained intensity ... One false word could have ruined this short tour de force completely. It never does." With its virtuoso writing, the novella is indeed a literary tour de force, a masterpiece of form and style. Yet, I do not find much depth in the book. The fascinating structure is empty inside. The beauty of the novella is superficial. This is not a masterpiece like "Disgrace", "Boyhood", or "Waiting for the Barbarians." Even the most unforgettable passages are more form than substance.
This is also one of the most demanding books I have ever read. I have spent over 12 hours to read its 151 pages. With books by lesser authors, the same number of pages would take me an hour and a half.
Three and a half stars.
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