Scenes from Provincial Life
A short and unsettling, deftly realized memoir of the celebrated South African writer's childhood in the hinterlands. South African memoirs, whether written by blacks or whites, tend to have a thread of sameness woven through: a sense of time and landscape as forces that irrevocably shape the soul. Coetzee (The Master of Petersburg, 1994, etc.), is no exception. Writing at the remove of the third person, he looks back at his youth in the distant dorp of Worcester, recounting how he was formed by his surroundings. This is not an eventful memoir--it's strength comes, instead, from Coetzee's nuanced, unblinking perceptions. His childhood was not unhappy in the conventional sense; the sadness and tragedies were mainly of the ordinary kind, and in his masterful depiction of them, that's what makes them so shattering. All too clearly, we see his weak, hapless father and his mother who is slowly being pushed to the side of her life--a bad marriage, abandoned career, a son whom she loves absolutely but who is too stubborn and embarrassed to reciprocate. There is the uncalibrated cruelty of children, the heedlessness of adults, Coetzee's pervading sense of difference (magnified by his Afrikaans parents' decision to raise him as English-speaking): "Nothing he experiences in Worcester, at home or at school, leads him to think that childhood is anything but a time of gritting the teeth and enduring." The memoir leaves Coetzee on the cusp of adolescence--at the funeral of an old aunt, where he experiences a small, bittersweet epiphany that seems to herald his becoming a writer. Perhaps Coetzee has removed too much of himself--there is an unsolved distance throughout that keeps this memoir from quite realizing the fullness of its potential. Still, this is a powerful, disillusioned portrait of childhood and how, like South Africa, it encompasses both prelapsarian innocence and unconscionable evil.