Burden of care

Slow man

by JM Coetzee

(Secker & Warburg)

The best descriptive passage in Slow Man comes with the scene that opens the novel, when cyclist Paul Rayment is hit by a reckless motorist: “The blow catches him from the right, sharp and surprising and painful … he hears rather than feels the impact of his skull on the bitumen, distant, wooden, like a mallet-blow.” The resulting amputation of Rayment’s leg is the event that precedes the dilemma of moral reliance that lies at the novel’s core. Rayment, a retired photographer, is made to suffer a series of affronts, from a young doctor’s decision to remove his leg without reasonable consent, to a visit from the teenager responsible for the accident, who unapologetically offers: “Thought I’d see how you are getting on Mr Rayment … Real bad luck.” More insufferable yet is his infantilisation at the hands of a day-care nurse who adopts a baby voice when attending to him: “If he wants Sheena to wash his willie, he must ask very nicely … Otherwise he will think Sheena is one of those naughty girls.”

It is the arrival of Marijana, a Croatian immigrant to Australia working as a home-carer, which brings this sequence of humiliations to an end. Rayment distances himself from his maimed body as he attaches his affections to her.
In his estimations, she is “a positively handsome woman … a woman who carries herself well, shoulders squared, breasts thrust forward. Prideful.” Coetzee is in his element here, not only in handling the tensions of Rayment’s “unsuitable passion” for Marijana, but in detailing the complications and psychological difficulties of a burden of care that often produces love as its consequence without a relation of love as its cause.

Uncomfortable ambiguities of dependence are soon present in the caretaker-patient relationship. Rayment, although deeply grateful for Marijana’s attentions, is ever resistant to her suggestion that he take on a prosthetic limb that will surely improve his mobility. In what amounts to a denial of his reliance, he attempts to take her family under his wing—although Rayment has no phantom limb, he certainly develops a phantom family—offering to pay for her son Drago’s schooling and even, later, to move in to their house as both “godfather” and benefactor.

There are shades here of the ambivalent master-servant relation that has characterised so much of Coetzee’s previous work. The inevitable reversal of this relation does of course come—Marijana rejects Rayment’s offer of love and is able to take liberties with her contractual relation with him as a result of his admission. Drago, Rayment’s potential beneficiary, becomes a figure of ingratitude and apparent dishonesty. What is different here, relative to many of Coetzee’s other novels, is that these volatile moments of reversed authority eventually pass, and the integrity of the actors is ultimately preserved, even though Rayment is somewhat humbled in the process.

The notion of the prosthetic is explored in another and less successful way also, not only as a relation of dependence, but also as relation of substitution, that is, as copy, as artificial replacement. Another female character is employed to this end—Elizabeth Costello, the epony-mous subject of Coetzee’s previous novel, who arrives at Rayment’s house as the author in the process of telling his story. Costello is a muse in reverse: rather than the object of beauty that inspires the artist, she is rather a subject of disgust and irritation, the artist who enters the text to urge her subject into a more assertive and exciting life.

This is not a narrative device that has endeared Coetzee to his critics, perhaps precisely because it makes plain the contrivance of fiction itself, which is not something many readers wish to be disabused of amid the pleasure of reading itself. These reflections on the writing process, on fabrication and disingenuousness in the making of art, often feel somewhat forced, even indulgent. (It is certainly true that the interchanges between these two characters make for the most overbearingly didactic passages in the book.) Then again, one might take this as a stroke of humility on the author’s part, particularly when the author in question is one as accomplished as Coetzee. By placing such a contrived element at the centre of the novel, indeed by relying upon it as a fulcrum of action (Costello is continually cajoling Rayment into acting), Coetzee forces us to accept what we would rather not: that artistic practice itself is fakery, prosthetic.

Slow Man clearly exhibits a greater degree of moral symmetry than is typically the case in Coetzee. This symmetry, basic as it is to the novel’s moral lesson—the lesson of reliance on one who is also reliant on you—certainly is atypical for an author whose narrative tensions have so often been built on radical asymmetries of prerogative, power and desire. While the themes of moral balance and mutual recognition may represent a welcome departure for Coetzee, who has more characteristically been concerned with their failure, these themes also inject a moment of sentimentality, which, perhaps unexpectedly, means that they affect us less.

At the heart of Coetzee

Some years ago, David Attwell wrote a book called JM Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing—a fine, nuanced work on Coetzee and his oblique engagement with the politics of South Africa. Now Derek Attridge has published a book that in some ways answers Attwell’s and takes Coetzee-reading in new directions: JM Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event (University of KwaZulu-Natal Press).

Coetzee has long grappled with ethical issues (particularly what Attridge calls the “ethics of otherness”): Coetzee has said that he hoped South Africa’s transition to democracy would mean a movement from politics to ethics. His novels stage ethical dilemmas; they are a form of imaginative hypothesis that asks questions rather than merely describing a seen or felt world. Therein lies much of their power, even if readers do not always take them this way.

This is different to seeing Coetzee as largely allegorical, as has often been the case, particularly among non-South African critics. Attridge challenges the allegorical reading of Coetzee’s fiction, placing it in its historical and political moments. He continues, as he moves through the oeuvre (up to Elizabeth Costello), to pinpoint key issues raised in the novels: for instance, Coetzee’s dialogue with the Western canon in Foe, and the way Coetzee questions confession-as-truth in Boyhood and Youth.

Attridge’s readings of Coetzee are subtle and illuminating; he locates individual works in the context of Coetzee’s work as a whole, and carefully and convincingly shows how reading Coetzee asks us to participate in an ethical exercise. And, while lacking nothing in academic credibility, Attridge writes without the obscurity often attendant on academic criticism.—Shaun de Waal

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