What it's like to delve into the heart of darkness with a great author…

I have just read two books by J.M.Coetzee in quick succession and I wonder how long it will be before I can pick up a book by another author and not fling it away as meaningless. I know that I will recover and the spell that Coetzee has created will pass; in time the whirlwind will die down, the mind will stop trying to hold on to phantom images floating in the half-light or to find rational answers to questions that are not meant to have any answers. But for the moment, I drift with Coetzee in the twilight zone — somewhere between life and death, between the known and the unknown, between certainty and doubt.

Led by Dostoevsky

In the first of the two books, The Master of Petersburg, one is led there by none other than Dostoevsky himself, who has, in this imagined episode, been called back to Petersburg from Dresden by the death of his stepson. Petersburg was never just another city to Russian writers. Gogol portrayed it as the capital of alienation, illusion and deception in his soul crushing Tales of Petersburg, a city where human greed and vanity ruled supreme. And Dostoevsky, credited with saying that the whole of Russian literature came out of Gogol's Overcoat, added a dimension of fantasy to the city. In the fevered imagination of his characters, it became a fog-bound city of hallucinations, visions and dreams; its long summer daylight could not only enchant but also play havoc on sleepless minds and tortured nerves.

In Coetzee's novel, the ghostly visions of this city are always at hand as Dostoevsky struggles to come to terms with the death of his stepson, in the process entering headlong into unexpected political intrigue and conflict. He takes over the room where his son lodged and forges ambiguous relationships with the landlady and her young daughter, to whom his son was not just a lodger but a hero, a revolutionary in the making, a man recovering from a lost childhood, even from a selfish step-father.

In that room he struggles with his son's memory, his visions and his smells, his ambitions and regrets, trying almost to will him back to life; in that room too his grief duels with his passion, in a doomed liaison with the landlady.

Soon he discovers that his son had joined the anarchists and now the arch anarchist, Nechaev, disguised as a woman, is trying to tempt him into the same game. Will he lend his writing, his respectable name, to their movement? Will he join them as they try to create a new future by destroying all that is old? Or will he continue to wallow in political apathy, writing about Russia's miseries. The anarchists obviously rest their hope on the fact that in reality Dostoevsky was arrested for being part of a radical group and was saved from the firing squad by a last minute reprieve.

As he plods his melancholy way around the city, forever in fear of his next epileptic fit, the Master struggles too with his inner demons, his fickle dark desires, his split loyalties. “This is not the lodging house of madness in which he is living, nor is Petersburg a city of madness. He is the mad one; and the one who admits he is the mad one is mad too. Nothing he says is true, nothing is false, nothing is to be trusted, nothing to be dismissed. There is nothing to hold to, nothing to do but fall.”

Not an easy book by any means, not one that lends itself to clear resolutions and even the plot that seems to form does so only to vanish again, like a midnight vision over the Neva. The only redemption seems to lie in the act of writing: “… he experiences, today, an exceptional sensual pleasure — in the feel of the pen, snug in the crook of his thumb, but even more in the feel of his hand being tugged back lightly from its course across the page by the strict, unvarying shape of the letters, the discipline of the alphabet.”

Bleak and unrelenting

Waiting for the Barbarians is an earlier book, not quite as spare and monastic as Coetzee's later work, but as bleak and unrelenting in its assessment of the human condition. The setting is unnamed: some say it is a backwater of apartheid South Africa, others believe, because of the snow descriptions, that it is Central Asia. It is in any case a frontier, the zone between the known and the feared unknown, the so-called civilised and the barbaric. There the unnamed Magistrate, a likeable, liberal, humanistic civil servant, spends his days, enjoying his siestas and his concubines, at peace with his surroundings.

Until the Empire that he is supposed to represent comes upon him, desperate in its dying throes to put all enemies, supposed or real, to the sword. And the proud, ambitious representatives of the empire, the merchants of torture do not trust men like the Magistrate. Condemned for his supposed softness towards the so-called barbarians, evidenced by his strange desire for a prisoner girl nearly blinded by torture, he is brutalised, demeaned and broken. And yet, there is something, some strand of humanity, which cannot be broken, even though all fancy ideas of justice are blown out of his mind by inhuman torture.

Two very strange and powerful books then from a man who, in the words of Bernard Levin, “sees the heart of darkness in all societies, and gradually it becomes clear that he is not dealing in politics at all, but inquiring into the nature of the beast that lurks within each of us.”

E-mail: navtej.sarna@gmail.com

Website: www.navtejsarna.com