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18 October 2023

JM Coetzee’s cold realism

The South African writer’s steely eye gives his stories of emotional restraint the feel of modern allegories.

By Ann Manov

JM Coetzee has not always set his fiction in South Africa: The Master of St Petersburg (1994) took place in Dostoevsky’s Russia; Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) on the edges of a hellish nowhere known only as “The Empire”; his Jesus trilogy, too, was set in an unnamed, though more peaceful, land. But for better or worse, Coetzee will be seen as a product of his native country. His Booker Prize wins were for books set in South Africa: The Life and Times of Michael K (1983) and Disgrace (1999). Awarding him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003, the Swedish Academy told Coetzee: “You are a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on your own, starting with the basic words for our deepest concerns.”

Those “deepest concerns” are terrifying ones, and it’s no coincidence that so many of Coetzee’s books are allegories. His best work has been frighteningly bleak, often set in a realm beyond human compassion, where brutality and torture are the only currency. In The Life and Times of Michael K, a poor Cape Town gardener with a cleft lip travels with his mother’s ashes, trying to return her to her birthplace as the country descends into civil war. In Age of Iron (1990), a classics professor dying of cancer writes a long letter to her daughter, with only a homeless man to comfort her as police torture black people, the country is set on fire, and she herself descends into suicidal hallucinations. In Disgrace, a Cape Town literature professor, exiled after essentially raping a student, seeks refuge on his butch daughter’s remote farm. Black men who work for his daughter then rape her, shoot her dogs, and try to set her father on fire, and she reacts to all of it with resignation, even acceptance.

If Coetzee’s best known work is a harrowing expression of the barbarians always at the gate, his strange, slim novella The Pole is, by comparison, almost stiflingly civilised. The story is mostly told from the perspective of Beatriz, a 49-year-old wife of a Barcelona banker. “Sexy? No she is not sexy, and certainly not seductive,” we’re told, although “She might have been sexy when she was young – how can she not have been with a figure like that? But now, in her forties, she goes in for a certain remoteness. She walks – one notices this particularly – without swinging her hips, gliding across the floor erect, even stately.” This is no obstacle for “the Pole”: the lanky Polish pianist more than 20 years her senior who soon arrives in Barcelona, invited by her philanthropic Concert Circle to perform the work of his compatriot Chopin.

Tasked with entertaining the Pole on his visit, Beatriz immediately panics that he might “expect sex”, and hopes that at his age, he won’t. Indeed, his age, from the beginning, is evoked with startling frankness: “At close quarters it is less easy to conceal marks of age. There are pouches under his eyes; the skin of his throat sags; the backs of his hands are mottled.” But their dinnertime conversation is polite, elevated. Perhaps the most shocking thing he says is, when asked about his childhood in such an “unhappy homeland”: “Happiness is not the most important… the most important sentiment… Anyone can be happy.” He bids her good night, thanking her for her “profound questions”. She goes home, thinking that she likes his seriousness, but dislikes a number of things about him, too: “Above all his dentures, too gleaming, too white, too fake.” She is tired.

[See also: Rupert Murdoch’s portrait in the attic]

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The Pole is an “oddity on the concert scene”: his “Chopin is not at all Romantic but on the contrary austere, Chopin as inheritor of Bach”. The Pole himself, however, turns out to be exceedingly romantic. He soon telephones to say he’s coming to a minor musical institute in Girona, and invites Beatriz. He’s here “for her”, he says: she spends a whole day debating his – rather obvious – meaning. She ponders whether to go – she might not sleep with her husband any more, but she lives by strict and somewhat impoverished rules of conduct. Nonetheless, she does of course visit the Pole in Girona, where he confesses his love and begs her to go to Brazil with him. Although she draws the line at elopement, she does artfully arrange to spend a few days with him in her husband’s family place in Mallorca, under the watchful but not exactly effectual eyes of the maid. She invites him to her room, in her controlled and cultivated fashion, and they have one night of passion.

A few years later, he dies. Beatriz gets a call from his daughter to retrieve a package from his flat in Poland. Should she go all the way to Warsaw? She doesn’t think so, but then does. There, she’s surprised that his apartment is suburban, mundane: “She had expected mahogany furniture, gloom, dust, creaking bookcases, spiders in the corners. In fact, save for a stack of cartons in a corner and four plastic chairs nested into one another, the front room is bare, and – because the curtains have been taken down – flooded with sunlight.” The estate agent is unhelpful; he gives her the Pole’s ashes.

Eventually she finds the box intended for her, though, containing loose papers, a binder, and a picture of her in a swimsuit he must have stolen from the house in Spain. She looks through the papers: they are poems, one to a page numbered from I to LXXXIV, and she finds, everywhere, the name “Beatrice”.

The rest of the book concerns the poem’s translation, and it is here that the novella, divided into six movements of numbered paragraphs, comes full circle. The Pole, like Coetzee’s previous book, was published in Spanish before it was published in English. His translator, Mariana Dimópoulos, even made suggestions about how a woman like Beatriz would think and act. Coetzee has said the Spanish version is closer to his intent than the English one; I haven’t read it, though at times this story does read like a work in translation: there is untouched Spanish dialogue, and some awkward casualties of translation: “She had a fling, she decides (she uses the English term)”; and are these “letters” she keeps writing on her computer in fact “emails” (correos being the Spanish word for both)?

The relationship between Beatriz and the Pole is odd, with Beatriz restraining her passion by intense inner discipline and aloofness, while the Pole’s fervour is muffled by a pile of intermediaries: translation, poetry, the imagination. In their brief time together, they are mostly silent; they find it difficult to speak “like any normal couple”, instead communicating in an awkward, global English. Perhaps that’s why their relationship takes on such a rarefied, even allegorical quality. “But if he were Spanish he would be a different man, just as if she were Polish she would be a different woman. They are what they are: grown-ups, civilised people.” And yet what they are doing – the poems, the plotted assignations, all their conversations – is so very civilised that their obscenities seem all the more blunt. “He found the perfect rose between the legs of a certain woman,” reads the poem Beatriz fixates on, “and thus attained final peace.”

“The Pole” is in some respects a strangely sterile story: it nominally takes place in Spain in 2015, but it’s a firmly global one. There is little physical description, little of the immediate sensation of life. Beatriz is not a woman of passions, at least not ones she gives in to, and she holds the Pole at such a distance that at times he seems almost non-existent. But for this reason, Beatriz’s disgust at his age and his violent and staunchly sexual desire for her are all the more shocking in their frankness. This is a book about deep themes – death, decay, despair, all three combined in an elderly character with a striking resemblance to his creator – and one that offers little consolation.

[See also: Max Pechstein and the politics of paint]

“The Pole” is followed by five other stories, all of them previously published (three of them, in translation). “As a Woman Grows Older” is particularly enjoyable, a reminder of the strange coldness present even in Coetzee’s cheekiest tales. We are back with Elizabeth Costello, an Australian writer and Coetzee’s beguiling alter ego. If Beatriz is almost aggravating in her conformity to social convention, Elizabeth is almost aggravating in her utter opposition to it. Now 72, she travels to Nice to meet her son and daughter, suspecting they are about to broach the subject of her inevitable infirmity. They do, as they drive through the Basses-Alpes to a restaurant. The daughter suggests she move into an apartment in her building; the mother says that she will probably decline, preferring to have a “good death” in Australia.

“Ask me what I mean by a good death.” 

“What do you mean by a good death, Mother?”

“A good death is one that takes place far away, where the mortal residue is disposed of by strangers, by people in the death business. A good death is one that you learn of by telegram: I regret to inform you, et cetera. What a pity telegrams have gone out of fashion.”

The daughter snorts and drives on. “She shivers, winds up the window. Like driving into an allegory!”

JM Coetzee’s dialogue is not exactly realistic: people may not speak quite so often of death and decay, nor investigate each other’s emotions with such a steely, scientific touch. But this book, like all of his work, operates at a bracing, invigorating level, like a dunk in ice-cold water – or, as he writes, “Like driving into an allegory!”

The Pole and Other Stories
JM Coetzee
Harvill Secker, 272pp, £20

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This article appears in the 18 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War on Three Fronts