In 1965, at the age of 15, my father—along with his parents and two brothers—emigrated from a racist South Africa. His relationship with that nation, over the 42 years since, has been a complicated one. For a decade, he traveled with a South African passport and the racist complicity it advertised. Today, in the U.S., his birthplace is only present in the vague British-ness of his accent, and even that has softened over the years.
In the sunny southern California of my youth, there were always South
Africans around. Most were well-adjusted and well-educated—whites who
had chosen to leave, who had emigrated either as a statement of
political opposition or in order to provide greater, safer
opportunities for their children.
As easy as it may have been for my father and his co-nationals to
separate themselves, physically, from the country of their birth
(privileged by race as they were), identity and culture are more
difficult to leave behind. It was in the works of writers like J.M.
Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer that my father sought to understand his
birth country; it was where he looked to try to process his own
relationship to that country’s political racism.
Since the 1994 dismantling of the apartheid system, it’s estimated
that close to one million more South Africans have emigrated from the
country. It’s not surprising, then, that emigrant and immigrant
experiences have grown more central to the late-career offerings of
these two preeminent South African writers.
Coetzee’s last three novels—including his most recent, Diary of a
Bad Year—have taken place in Australia, where the author now lives; in
the last two, the experiences of expatriate South Africans are the main
focus. Gordimer, who continues to live in South Africa, centered her
2001 novel The Pickup on the emigration of a South African native to
the Middle East. And much of her recent collection of short ?ction,
Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black And Other Stories, deals with the
lives of non-native South Africans and South Africans abroad.
For a nation with literature that has gained international
recognition for its articulation of life under a racist government
regime, such a trend is signi?cant. In the past decades, as major
international writers have focused on the legacies of colonialism,
South African writers’ unique post-colonial experience has given their
voice substantial resonance. Gordimer’s and Coetzee’s dual Nobel
Prizes—received in 1991 and 2003, respectively—speak to this fact.
More than a decade after the system of apartheid was dismantled and
the ?rst democratic election counted the votes of all races, Coetzee
and Gordimer are still writing with distinctive mastery about the
complications of a morality suffused with a particularly ugly
post-colonial past. Their most recent works do not abandon this
pursuit, and while the two new books are neither writer’s greatest,
each re?ects the evolving variety of the South African experience.
In Diary of a Bad Year, Coetzee tells the story of an aging South
African novelist (“Señor C”—clearly a stand-in for Coetzee) who is
living in Australia, writing a commissioned book of political opinions
for a German audience and lusting after his young Filipina typist. The
tale is told in three sections—each ?lls a third of every page: the top
reproduces the political text, Strong Opinions. The middle is a
?rst-person account as narrated by C. The bottom is written in the
voice of Anya, the typist, who lives with her sometimes hostile,
sometimes jealous boyfriend in the same building as the author.
Initially distracting, the shifting between three voices—and two
genres—is deftly handled by Coetzee. Likewise, the subtle resonances
between the political opinions, which mostly criticize political
hypocrisy (much ink is spilled about the U.S.-led War on Iraq), and the
simple story of an old man’s con?icted sexuality, are surprisingly
moving. By the end of the book, there is a palpable feeling that both C
and Anya have grown and changed—which is especially gratifying in
contrast to the bleak nature of the political writings.
Much of Diary’s poignancy comes from its positioning of C as a
displaced person—by the idealism of his politics, by his age and by his
immigrant status. Ultimately, when he criticizes the West for accepting
intrusive government actions “in the name of terror” by remarking that
they mirror those perpetrated in the name of South Africa’s apartheid
system, he isn’t recognized for his wisdom; instead he’s told he should
“go back to where he came from.” Luckily, Anya’s judgment of him is
In Gordimer’s Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black, the focus is also
on narratives of displacement—from loved ones, homelands and
ancestries. In the title story, a middle-aged white professor, once an
active anti-apartheid protester, contemplates the marginality of his
role in the New South Africa, while recounting the morally dubious
experiences of his grandfather, who came to South Africa from Europe to
seek his fortune.
This story, like most in the collection, is told in Gordimer’s
trademark clipped prose; her use of repetition and fragmentation is
stunning as an impressionistic gesture, capturing the scattered nature
of our most anxious thoughts: “Dubious. What kind of claim do you need?
The standard of privilege changes with each regime. Isn’t it a try at
privilege. Yes? One up towards the ruling class whatever it might be.
In the best of her terse, economical stories, Gordimer places
foreigners in South Africa and South Africans outside of their homeland
in order to tease out, through the shock of the unfamiliar, what it
means to have a South African identity today.
In “Allesverloren,” a South African widow travels to London to
follow the trail of her once-displaced husband. In “Mother Tongue,” a
South African living in Germany meets and falls for a woman only to
bring her home to the confusion of “his Africa.” In “Alternative
Endings: The Second Sense,” two Hungarian immigrants fail each other as
lovers when they’re offered divergent paths in a chaotic modern South
Taken together, Coetzee and Gordimer’s newest books are a strong
testament to their writers’ universal importance: Even beyond direct
examinations of South Africa’s famous crimes, their exploration of the
South African experience is vital. For both, life as a South African is
only as complex as love and longing—at home or abroad—which means it is
endlessly, but not hopelessly, complex.