Lie Down in the Karoo: An Antidote to the Anthropocene

Simón and David, a man and a boy, arrive by boat to find a new life. David’s father perished in an accident during the trip. David had a letter giving specifics of his mother. This was also lost. It ...

Simón and David, a man and a boy, arrive by boat to find a new life. David’s father perished in an accident during the trip. David had a letter giving specifics of his mother. This was also lost. It is, then, an undocumented migrant child accompanied by an unrelated adult who arrives at the inn, looking for his mother. The title of the book makes us think this is the child Jesus and we are not wrong. Simón “finds” David’s mother, by intuition, not evidence. After problems with regular schooling because David is a miracle child, Simón and Inés, the “found” mother, escape the law and are on the road in a car, in search of a new life again.

This simple tale—The Childhood of Jesus—is a learning text. J. M. Coetzee writes novels where, by setting up rhetorical signals, he draws in the reader into making the meaning and thus learning how to “read.” Further, he himself tries to access the mindset of those unlike him by staging their story in novels—derelicts (The Life and Times of Michael K.), “barbarian” females (Waiting for the Barbarians), old women (Age of Iron, the Elizabeth Costello novels), the colonized and enslaved (Foe), the list goes on. He is a creative writer of theory. On his “own” behalf (it is hard to say this for a writer who is an active theorizer, theorizing so internalized that it comes out as super-real simplicity), he stages actively and repeatedly the question of the white Creole’s right to honesty and love of/in the postcolonial nation, to move beyond mere obedience to the political correctness of nothing but distant admiration of the formerly colonized. This last question has occupied perhaps all of his books, but more pointedly Disgrace, the peculiar “autobiographical” books Boyhood, Youth, Summertime, and this. I have tried to track him, uncertainly.1

Let me cite a series of texts that consolidate my intuition that The Childhood of Jesus is the last in a line of texts writing the attachment to land outside of the topology of colonialism.

In one of his “autobiographical” texts, where “facts” are often manipulated, a fictive John Coetzee as a boy, in the third person, thinks of the “Karoo,” where, in Voëlfontein, his family had a farm:

[H]e loves every stone of it, every bush, every blade of grass, loves the birds that give it its name, birds that, as dusk falls, gather in their thousands in the trees around the fountain, calling to each other, murmuring, ruffling their feathers, settling for the night. It is not conceivable that another person could love the farm as he does. … There is not enough time in a single life to know all of Voëlfontein, know its every stone and bush. No time can be enough when one loves a place with such devouring love. … Would that be the price, if he were to give up going to school and plead to live here on the farm: that he would have to stop asking questions, obey all the mustn’ts, just do as he was told? Would he be prepared to knuckle down and pay that price? Is there no way of living in the Karoo—the only place in the world where he wants to be—as he wants to live: without belonging to a family?2

Some years ago, in Nationalism and the Imagination, I wrote:

this rock bottom comfort in one’s language and one’s home with which nationalism conjures is not a positive affect. When there is nothing but this as I saw with these folks I worked with. I would not have known this as a metropolitan Kolkata person at the time of independence, at the inception of the new nation-state from an established nationalism. When there is nothing but this, its working is simply a thereness. Please remember I am not talking about resistance groups, but people who accept wretchedness as normality. That’s the subaltern, those are the folks that I worked with. I learned this from below. When this comfort is taken away, there is a feeling of helplessness, loss of orientation, dependency, but no nation thing.

Has the colonizing elite earned the right to access this subaltern helplessness? Is history so much larger than personal affect that only political correctness is allowed?

In Summertime, John Coetzee is dead, and his love of the Karoo is narrated in a conversation with his cousin Margot, telling her his secret: “‘Don’t reveal that to Carol,’ he—John, her cousin—says. ‘Don’t tell her, with her satirical tongue, how I feel about the Karoo. If you do, I’ll never hear the end of it.’”3

The passage just above these words corroborates my own sense of the nature of this affect, shared by the human with the top primates. In the reported conversation, Coetzee the cousin is made to cite, for Margot somewhat gratuitously, Eugene Marais’s My Friends the Baboons:

“He writes that at nightfall, when the troop stopped foraging and watched the sun go down, he could detect in the eyes of the older baboons the stirrings of melancholy, the birth of a first awareness of their own mortality . … I understand what the old male baboon was thinking as he watched the sun go down, the troop leader, the one Marais was closest to. Never again, he was thinking: Just one life and then never again. Never, never, never. That is what the Karoo does to me too. It fills me with melancholy. It spoils me for life.”  She still does not see what baboons have to do with the Karoo or their childhood years, but she is not going to let on.

I am sitting in Ghana, reading W. E. B. Du Bois’s personal copies of the obvious 19th-century texts describing South Africa, the most obvious being George Stow’s posthumously published Native Races of South Africa, where the vicious extermination policy of the Dutch, and then the Boer farmers—the latter Coetzee’s ancestors—are recounted, sometimes by eyewitness colonial participants. “Coetzee” as a surname is cited both among the colonists and the so-called Bastaards. It makes us ask again, and perhaps Coetzee does, how much larger is history than personal goodwill? Should this question be withheld regarding pre-colonial violence, depredations, slave trading, et cetera? Nothing of this is in The Childhood of Jesus.4 My reading is contaminated by what seems deep background.5 Coetzee engages with this background in his staging a gift of his first book, Dusklands (1974), to his lover Julia, who recounts a long conversation, once again in Summertime.6 The book contains two novellas—first “The Vietnam Project,” where a textually schizophrenic author uses a narrator, deeply resentful of “Coetzee,” to act out a descent into insanity as what we have learned to call “post-traumatic stress syndrome” after Vietnam. The second novella is “The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee,” the fictionalized account (comparable in inspiration to Assia Djebar’s imagining of women’s moments in a medieval Arabic text in Far from Madina) of an actual 18th-century deposition by an actual ancestor of the author, the account itself also included in the text.7 Already in this first publication we see the fictive staging of a “Coetzee” implicated in imperialism. A certain historical continuity of exterminatory imperialism is established, perhaps; and, in Summertime we are asked to attend to it. In a curious passage in Dusklands, “Coetzee” commenting on Jacobus Coetzee establishes a peculiar connection between the US and South Africa:

We may in passing pause to glance with sorrow at the pusillanimous policy of the [Dutch East India] Company in regard to White colonization, with regret and puzzlement at the stasis of the Netherlands population during the eighteenth century (sloth? Self-satisfaction?), and with wistful admiration at the growth of the United States, which in the same era increased the White population geometrically and checked its native population growth so effectively that by 1870 there were fewer Indians than ever before.8

 The Childhood of Jesus seems to undo “The Vietnam Project,” where the biological father stabs the child to hold it from its biological mother. In the fictionalized narrative of Jacobus Coetzee, apart from historical racism combined with admiration and implausible philosophical speculation, most of the account is of the details of a tremendous diarrhea suffered by the protagonist and his epistemological performance of self-recovery with the passing of “a healthy stool.”9 If the invocation of the baboon in the 2009 text calls up the animal’s attachment to space, the 1974 text recounts the mingling of master and man in an inscription of the soil that cannot be erased. A transformation of Levinas’s idea of the human as object as the inauguration of the ethical:10

From the scalp and beard, dead hair and scales. From the ears, crumbs of wax. From the nose, mucus and blood (Klawer, Dikkop [Hottentot followers], a fall and blows respectively). From the eyes, tears and a rheumy paste. From the mouth, blood, rotten teeth, calculus, phlegm, vomit. From the skin, pus, blood, scabs, weeping plasma (Plaatje [Hottentot follower], a gunpowder burn), sweat, sebum, scales, hair. Nail fragments, interdigital decay. Urine and the minute kidney stones (Cape water is rich in alkalis).   Smegma (circumcision is confined to the Bantu). Faecal matter, blood, pus (Dikkop, poison). Semen (all). These relicts, deposited over Southern Africa in two swathes, soon disappeared under sun, wind, rain, and the attentions of the insect kingdom, though their atomic constituents are still of course among us. Scripta manent.11

I believe the new land of The Childhood of Jesus, without history, the place of active forgetfulness (Nietzsche), is the way for a postcolonial white creole subject to imagine the best of pre-colonial Africa. Again and again, Simón asks “Why?” and accedes to belief from reason and irony at last. Simón is his new name—perhaps an allusion to Simon Peter, who accompanied Jesus and saw his transfiguration, as does this Simón in the hospital: “The chariot is made of ivory or some metal inlaid with ivory, and is drawn by two white horses. … Grasping the reins in one hand, holding the other hand aloft in a regal gesture, is the boy, naked save for a cotton loincloth.”

Perhaps in such a man’s vision, the child Jesus, brought by him to a new life, can grow only in such a society—only for a while, of course—because the fully grown Jesus can only be imagined, in the mode of a counterfactual time out of time, “to come.” Like James Joyce’s Gabriel Conroy, Simón is shown to be able to imagine that which he cannot know.12

Most societies are abstractly constructed by perceived sexual difference. This is the easiest material difference that people can perceive. This is the tacit global, before the globe was imagined by men of science. Coetzee stages the entire story within this difference, around the questions of the search for the mother, and the Virgin birth. There is a reasonable female, Elena, who argues strongly against Simón’s intuitive choice of the mother as David’s mother, in spite of the fact that she is a 30-year old virgin—there is an embarrassing episode with a sanitary napkin—whom Simón and David have accidentally encountered in a place found by mistake because the map is wrong.13

Coetzee’s story displays a rarefied (and fascinatingly dull) primitive socialism without locatable geographical lineaments. It is into such a society that everyone comes to be born again. The date of their arrival is their new birthday. It is a society without irony, without memory, where nobody understands why an activity must be justified in terms of an end rather than simply celebrated as labor, where there is a good deal of useless bureaucracy, and where physical and intellectual appetites are expected to be denied. It is to such a society that the child Jesus must come in order to supersede it and run from reasonable educational principles that cannot understand his miraculous being. The “mother” that Simón intuitively recognizes comes from a Residencia that seems to belong to the vague outlines of an older order, perhaps even reminiscent of Coetzee’s memory of his own mother’s life before his parents married, at least as reported by the author-as-character of Boyhood.14

The languages that are invoked in the novel cannot be named. Everyone is supposedly speaking Spanish, Simón and David badly. Arrived at page 66, we cannot be sure that that is indeed the language that is normally called Spanish for, on page 67, a passage in German is represented as English, presumably to show that the English text is not English. How does it feel, the text might be asking, to inhabit an unknown but translated episteme? What might be staged is the sanctioned ignorance of both the Biblical and African languages. “Would I be able to translate myself soberly across the told tale, getting back to a dull, decent farmer’s life in the shortest possible time, or would I weaken and in a fit of boredom set out down a new path, implicate myself in a new life, perhaps the life of the white Bushman that had been hinting itself to me?”15 had been the earlier question. When, at a certain point, languages are listed—this is the list: “Portuguese … Catalan … Galician … Basque … Esperanto … Volapük.” We are in a translated world with no clue to the original. This is the metaphysical status of this fiction, underived from a verifiable truth.

From the moment that Simón recognizes David’s mother, he is subtly changing from reasonableness to a belief in the boy. In the matter of the boy’s education, however, he still lingers in reason. He does not like the way Inés, the mother, is spoiling him, turning him into a “little prince.” He constantly explains nature, human nature, and the world that the boy must accept in order to go forward. But a series of looks into the boy’s eyes, as he resists reading through learning to write, and resists the abstract idea of numbers, gives Simón brief epiphanies that start to shake him into the acceptance of an imagined access to an epistemology that might hold the Karoo of the absent narrating subject’s dreams, elsewhere, not in a nation named “South Africa,” which can only dismiss such efforts.16 He comes to understand magic as coexisting with daily life. But it is the acceptance by his brothers at work of his previous suggestion of bringing in technology that finally teaches him how to believe. The crane that is brought in swings, filled with grain, and hits him in the chest. He is in hospital close to death. It is in this condition that he has that vision of transfiguration I have quoted above. He comes to glimpse why the boy did not wish to read through learning to make letters and how he understands numbers:

When I was in hospital with nothing else to do, I tried, as a mental exercise, to see the world through David’s eyes. Put an apple before him and what does he see? An apple: not one apple, just an apple. … what is the singular of which apples is the plural? Three men in a car heading for the East Blocks: who is the singular of which men is the plural—. … Are we three, or are we one and one and one? . … how shall I ever get from zero to one? From nowhere to somewhere: it seemed to demand a miracle each time. … What if this boy is the only one among us with eyes to see?

In the real world, Melanie Klein had worked with the thought that for the child metaphors and abstractions are real, and had guided her young patients into that real world. In the world of Coetzee’s imagining, “is there anyone on earth to whom numbers are more real?,” and belief guides this question away from a merely reasonable “coming to his senses.”

When the boy writes miraculously, something makes him write “Deos” (Greek) for “Dios” (Spanish) and write “Yo soy la verdad” for “Conviene que yo digo la verdad.” (Earlier, Simón had approached this sort of uncanny behavior through the idea of consubstantiation and had likened it to the philosophical belief associated with cannibalism. He had tried to grasp the “natural” in the super-natural, the actuality of flesh and blood rather than the Eucharist. But now, all differences fall away.)

This is not an either-or. Literature is not evidence. It is an attempt to access an episteme within which, magical, the Christ-child can be imagined as real. It is an attempt to celebrate an axis where the childlike is not held as childish. An attempt to earn the right to lie down in the Karoo left behind. Simón cannot bring it to a conclusion, of course. The book ends with the sentence: “Looking for somewhere to stay, to start our new life”; almost, but not quite, the opening sentence—an iteration, a displacement, not a repetition; opening up to what Eugenio would call “bad infinity”—a mise-en-abyme. We cannot know if his words to Inés—“I will follow you to the ends of the earth” are spoken—“he pauses, resisting the words that want to come out—‘I will follow you to the ends of the earth.’” Fiction as resisting the historical future, when the brotherhood of Simon Peter will “civilize” primitive socialist bureaucratic patriarchies for colonialism.17 is the very embodiment of Africa when she shall have lost her immemorial contacts with the Supernatural, unless she has a supreme God to lean on” (Friends of Africa, edited by Jean K. Mackenzie, United Study of Foreign Missions, n.d. [1928?]), p. 224. Book in Du Bois’s private collection; passage marked in pencil, presumably by him. ]

  1. J. M. Coetzee, Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (Penguin, 1997); Disgrace (Penguin, 1999); Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II (Penguin, 2002); Summertime: Scenes from a Provincial Life (Penguin, 2009).
  2. Coetzee, Boyhood, p. 80, 91.
  3. Coetzee, Summertime. The next extract is from the same page.
  4. The only possible, and highly improbable, connection might be the name of the city where Simón and David are born again—Novilla—as recalling Queen Novili, the granddaughter of the last great Xosa chief Kreli (John Henderson Soga, The Ama-Xosa: Life and Customs, Lovedale, 1932, p. 106; Du Bois’s private collction; cited obviously not as “current research” but “colonial classics.”)
  5. I have asked myself this question continually over the last 30 years as I try to train teachers among the rural landless dalits in my home state. My caste and class have millennially denied them the right to intellectual labor, oppressed them in many cruel material ways, and convinced them of their social and spiritual inferiority.
  6. J. M. Coetzee, Dusklands (Penguin, 1974; 2004). The conversation with Julia is in Summertime, pp. 55–63.
  7. Assia Djebar, Far from Madina, translated by Dorothy Grant (Quartet, 1994).
  8. Coetzee, Dusklands, p. 112
  9. Coetzee, Dusklands, p. 94
  10. Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being, or, Beyond Essence, translated by Alphonso Lingis (Duquesne University Press, 1998).
  11. Coetzee, Dusklands, p. 119
  12. James Joyce, “The Dead,” in Dubliners (Viking, 1967), pp. 175–224.
  13. Accessing by mistake is a mini-topos. In Mahasweta Devi’s “Pterodactyl,” the story of an Indian journalist going to investigate a tribal area where a pterodactyl has appeared, for example, it is only when the journalist is unable to answer the question posed by the tribals that he finds himself admitted to the enclosure where the ancient bird is lodged (Mahasweta Devi, “Pterodactyl,” in Imaginary Maps, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Routledge, 1993, pp. 95–196). Examples can be multiplied.
  14. Coetzee, Boyhood, pp. 39–40, 47–48.
  15. Coetzee, Dusklands, p. 101
  16. Njabulo Ndebele’s comradeship with “J. M.” and Abiola Irele’s careful readings shine out in this general gloom.
  17. Rather than present a binary opposition between the supernatural and true religion: “He [the African
Featured image: Overlooking the Karoo National Park (2004). Photograph by Tjeerd Wiersma. Flickr