NS Profile - The white South African novelist

Despite a Booker nomination and a Nobel Prize, these writers, unheard in their own land, feel oppres

This is a good moment for the novel in South Africa: John Maxwell Coetzee has been awarded the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature and Damon Galgut, who writes under Coetzee's influence, will discover on Tuesday whether his fifth novel, The Good Doctor, has won the Booker Prize. Yet there is also a feeling of hopelessness among many white South African writers, an increasing sense that to be a writer there is to be condemned, through the absence of a local readership or anything resembling an indigenous literary culture, to write endlessly into a vacuum of indifference. The novel is their chosen medium of expression, but they feel oppressed by emptiness; there is a sense of having something important to say but of not being heard. At least, not by their own people, in the country they call home.

"Not only is South African literature, historically, the literature of a vacuum, but more and more it is becoming a literature in a vacuum," says the Cape Town-based writer and critic Roy Robins. "Where is the new generation of South African writers under 50, black or white? Can you imagine South Africa starting its own Granta-type list for writers under 40? We would be hard-pressed to find even two worthy of inclusion . . . It is easy to say that the problem of literature in South Africa is that we do not have a culture of reading, and therefore of writing, fiction. But this problem of literature is subsumed by a deeper, more important problem - the problem of literacy. For it seems almost arrogant to worry about the future of local fiction in a country where many can't even write their own names."

It is certainly true that for many black South Africans the novel remains an alien form, something imported from Europe and tainted by colonialism. And perhaps the art of fiction in places of such poverty is, after all, a kind of bourgeois luxury. What place is there for the novel when 30 per cent of the population is reported to be HIV-positive? When millions are shut out through a quirk of birth from civil society? More obliquely, what relevance do the canonical texts of the great western tradition and the old cultural hierarchies have to decolonised peoples engaged in long and complicated struggles for self-realisation?

Discussing the work of Nadine Gordimer in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, Coetzee writes of how, in the 1970s, Gordimer was made to realise that, to black South Africans, "the people to whose struggle she bore historical witness, the name Zola, to say nothing of the name Proust, carried no resonance - that she was too European to matter to the people who mattered most to her". One can read into this remark - with its sly allusion to Saul Bellow's notorious quip about the failure of the African continent to produce a truly great writer, an "African Proust" - something of Coetzee's own regret and frustration.

In a series of admirable novels, many written while he was working as a professor of literature at Cape Town University in the 1980s and 1990s, Coetzee used allegory and parable to write against apartheid and to challenge the oppression and absurdities of the old regime. He was, as the Nobel committee pointed out, "ruthless in his criticism of the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of western civilisation". But Coetzee moved to Australia in 2002 after his Booker-winning novel, Disgrace (1999), was received with resentment and incredulity in his home country. In particular, leading members of the African National Congress accused him of disloyalty, as if they believed that fiction should bring only good news about post-apartheid South Africa.

His recent work returns obsessively to the question of what it means to be a white writer in Africa, and to the dilemma of writing about and for a society that cannot or will not read your work. David Lurie, the protagonist of Disgrace, is a disaffected, middle-aged academic, preoccupied by death and by the diminishment of the humanities at his university. He believes the high European cultural tradition - Romantic poetry, opera, philosophy and Greek tragedy - has no place in Africa. In retreat, Lurie has an affair with one of his students; the affair is discovered by the authorities and, when he refuses to apologise, Lurie is sacked. This is his disgrace. He travels to the Eastern Cape to stay with his daughter, Lucy, on her isolated farmstead; one afternoon, Lurie is attacked and his daughter gang-raped by black men. Too neatly - Coetzee is a programmatic writer, and his novels are rigidly schematic, like elaborate puzzles, really - Lucy becomes pregnant. But she refuses to have an abortion, because she believes humiliation is the fate she most deserves as a once privileged white woman in Africa. In despair, Lurie, distracted by the libretto on the life of Byron he writes in his head, withdraws further, and ends up, withered by contempt, working with sick and dying animals. His fall is complete.

Disgrace is a fine and bold novel, but it has been appropriated by cultural conservatives who argue that it reveals the whole truth about the corruption of the new South Africa, as if the old South Africa was in any way less corrupt. In truth, South Africa is perhaps more unstable than it was under apartheid for the simple reason that its people are more free and sceptical.

The protagonist of Coetzee's latest novel, Elizabeth Costello (2003), is, like Lurie, out of place and out of time. Elizabeth is a celebrated writer, travelling the world to academic conferences and professional speaking engagements, but she feels bereft. The modern world - its cheap obsessions, its junk and celebrity culture, its cult of the new - distresses her. At one conference, she meets a famous Nigerian writer, who is delivering a paper on the novel in Africa. What interests him most, he says, is the oral tradition. She is unconvinced. "The English novel," she tells him, "is written in the first place by English people for English people. That is what makes it the English novel. The Russian novel is written by Russians for Russians. But the African novel is not written by Africans for Africans. African novelists may write about Africa, about African experiences, but they seem to me to be glancing over their shoulder all the time they write, at the foreigners who will read them. Whether they like it or not, they have accepted the role of interpreter, interpreting Africa to their readers. Yet how can you explore a world in all its depth if at the same time you are having to explain it to outsiders?"

Elizabeth Costello never answers her own question. You sense, however, that, like Coetzee himself, she feels the answer is that the novel has no future in Africa, certainly not until it is written not for a putative international readership but by Africans for Africans themselves. There is a similar sense of despair in Galgut's The Good Doctor, which is set in a remote and run-down hospital in a former homeland, the semi-autonomous, often barren areas where the old apartheid government allowed a semblance of self-rule. One is never quite sure who is the good doctor of the title - the jaded and nihilistic narrator, Frank, or Laurence, the idealistic young doctor who arrives with big ideas on how to improve the lives of the impoverished local population.

The Good Doctor is written with economy and grace. An allegory of the sense of redundancy and guilt felt by many white South Africans, it offers a vision of the new country that is as bleak as anything by Coetzee. Through Frank's relationship with the black doctor for whom he works, with her staff, and with the young illiterate African Maria, whom he pays for sex, Galgut dramatises the tensions confronting even the most optimistic liberal whites in a country that they feel is increasingly indifferent to their fate. These were people who believed in the struggle to liberate the black majority, who despised the cruelty of apartheid, but who cannot now accept the loss of their own exceptionalism.

Frank may therefore be a more reliable witness to the political transformation of South Africa because, unlike the liberal Laurence, he has no great expectations. He may be cynical and contemptuous of progress, yet he yearns for something better; he even fantasises that he and poor, illiterate Maria may one day start a new life together in the city, far away from the desolate aridity of the homeland. But he knows that all such hopes are forlorn, that perhaps there can never be true understanding or reconciliation between the European and the African, that there is, in the end, no place for the white man in Africa. And always in the background of this novel is the unforgiving landscape, the bush that grows remorselessly and covers everything.

The Good Doctor is a novel about guilty memory and the instability of the past; Frank is surrounded by presences from the life he has left behind, not all of whom may be real. It is also about how we can never evade the truth of what we have done, especially in a country as tainted as South Africa.

Galgut lives in a small, cramped flat in Cape Town. He is committed to the new South Africa and deeply attached to the landscape of the Western Cape, but, since being shortlisted for the Booker, he too has spoken of persistent feelings of irrelevance. He was surprised, on arriving in London, at the amount of book chat in England and how it has a committed community of writers and readers of the kind missing from South Africa.

Will he return home if he wins the Booker? One hopes so, not least because the traumas of nation-building can be a source not only of despair, but also of inspiration, to both black and white writers. It can provoke them into speech. This may explain why there is an urgency and tension to many South African novels; reading them, you feel that something important is at stake. You seldom feel that when you read a contemporary English novel.

"It is the storyteller," wrote the great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, "who makes us what we are, who creates history. The storyteller creates the memory that the survivors must have - otherwise their surviving would have no meaning." In recent years, many talented young black African writers have emerged, especially in Nigeria, writers who have begun to create their own histories, reclaiming the truth of the African experience from outsiders, and recasting the myths and stories and hard political realities of their native lands in fiction. They have also given a once foreign language, English, an indigenous African idiom. The same, I'm sure, can happen in South Africa, a country that has already had its Coetzee and Mandela and now awaits its Achebe.