ON THE CULTURE OF LETTERS IN SOUTH AFRICA
South African novelist Coetzee (Waiting for the Barbarians, 1982; Life & Times of Michael K, 1984) is a professor as well at the University of Cape Town--and this collection of seven essays about writings by whites in South Africa has a fashionable structuralist feel to it. To wit: though Coetzee is unable to honestly recommend (or even tempt the reader's interest) with the writers he deals with--C.M. van den Heever, Pauline Smith, Olive Schreiner, Alan Paton, Sarah Gertrude Millin--the forms and subjects and procedures they use are assumed to be (and are in fact) far more telling than any particular work. Coetzee will home in on the interpretations South African writers (mostly precontemporary) have given certain concepts--the sublime, the picturesque, idleness, the farm, blood--and find each time another wrinkle in the fabric of racist empowerment this culture has developed. Coetzee is such a good structuralist, in fact, that the quotations from the writers he's writing about seem almost beside the point, mere buttresses. What is inescapable, however, is a reader's conclusion that South African writing's golden age is not then but now--as it worries the bone of previous barbarisms of attitude, the cultural determinism, in the in-every-way pale tradition Coetzee details.