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Book Review: In the Heart of the Country, by J. M. Coetzee

One of those depressing literary novels about colonialism and the seething violence that lies beneath, with a narrator who is as unlikeable as she is crazy and unreliable.


In the Heart of the Country

Harper and Row, 1977, 139 pages



On a remote farm in South Africa, the protagonist of J. M. Coetzee's fierce and passionate novel watches the life from which she has been excluded. Ignored by her callous father, scorned and feared by his servants, she is a bitterly intelligent woman whose outward meekness disguises a desperate resolve not to become "one of the forgotten ones of history." When her father takes an African mistress, that resolve precipitates an act of vengeance that suggests a chemical reaction between the colonizer and the colonized -- and between European yearnings and the vastness and solitude of Africa.

A story told in prose as feverishly rich as William Faulkner's, In the Heart of the Country is a work of irresistible power. With vast assurance and an unerring eye, J. M. Coetzee has turned the family romance into a mirror of the colonial experience.




Published in the U.S. as From the Heart of the Country (why, I don't know: the phrase, used twice in the novel, is in), Peter Boxall's 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die says:


In the Heart of the Country is the story of a woman that history has abandoned, but the book does not itself abandon history in its journey into the inner psyche. Shocking, challenging, and disturbing, this is one of the earliest of Coetzee's fictional explorations of the webs of sexual and racial oppression bequeathed to South Africa by its history of colonial rule.



From the Heart of the Country



So it's one of those novels. A grimdark historical set piece with a few actors playing out their grim, dreary lives as metaphors for colonial oppression. Coetzee brings the stark, alienating landscape of South Africa to life. When Magda, the narrator, describes her life out on the veldt, on her father's sheep ranch miles from any neighbors, with only a handful of servants to keep them company, you come to understand how easy it would be to go nuts out here living as aliens in a land that never invited you, at about the same time that you come to understand that Magda is, in fact, nucking futs. But she's also keenly observant and perceptive and whip-smart, which makes her madness the most painful, self-aware kind: she's crazy and she knows she's crazy and she can analyze her crazy from every angle, but it doesn't seem crazy to her and therefore it doesn't occur to her to act any differently than she does.

The craziness initially manifests as bitter self-loathing, almost disgust, for herself. She describes herself, both mentally and physically, in such brutal terms that it's very uncomfortable reading, though she rarely descends to self-pity. She's an unloved spinster as dry as the land around her, with a father for whom she's unwanted crotch-fruit who, once her mother had the poor grace to die, might as well have sprung up out of the ground.

A black farm hand named Hendrick comes to work for her father. Hendrick soon takes a wife, Anna (or "Klein-Anna" as they call her, to distinguish her from an older servant also named Anna). Anna is young and pretty and child-like. Magda's father is the baas, the symbol of white power and colonialism (though the racial issues are surprisingly understated: this is early South Africa, and aside from Hendrick's occasional humorous-but-really-not depreciating comments about what brown people can't do, there isn't any need to point out the unspoken subtext of all relations between white Madga and her father and black Hendrick and his wife). Things go the way they usually do in novels like this (and often did in history). It gets ugly.

And Magda goes completely off her rocker.


25. My father lies on his back, naked, the fingers of his right hand twined in the fingers of her left, the jaw slack, the dark eyes closed on all their fire and lightning, a liquid rattle coming from the throat, the tired blind fish, cause of all my woe, lolling in his groin (would that it had been dragged out long ago with all its roots and bulbs!). The axe sweeps up over my shoulder. All kinds of people have done this before me, wives, sons, lovers, heirs, rivals, I am not alone. Like a ball on a string it floats down at the end of my arm, sinks into the throat below me, and all is suddenly tumult. The woman snaps upright in bed, glaring about her, drenched in blood, bewildered by an angry wheezing and spouting at her side. How fortunate that at times like these the larger action flows of itself and requires of the presiding figure no more than a presence of mind! She wriggles her nightdress decently over her hips. Leaning forward and gripping what must be one of their four knees, I deliver much the better chop deep into the crown of her head. She dips over into the cradle of her lap and topples leftward in a ball, my dramatic tomahawk still embedded in her. (Who would have thought I had such strokes in me?) But fingers are scratching at me from this side of the bed. I am off balance, I must keep a cool head, I must pick them off one by one, recover (with some effort) my axe, and hack with distaste at these hands, these arms until I have a free moment to draw a sheet over all this shuddering and pound it into quiet. Here I am beating with a steady rhythm, longer perhaps than is necessary, but calming myself too in preparation for what must be a whole new phase of my life. For no longer need I fret about how to fill my days. I have broken a commandment, and the guilty cannot be bored. I have two fullgrown bodies to get rid of besides many other traces of my violence. I have a face to compose, a story to invent, and all before dawn when Hendrick comes for the milking-pail!


Yup, just when I was starting to get bored, on about page 10 Magda sneaks into her father's bedroom and hacks him and his new bride to death with an axe. Yummy!

Where did that bride come from? Why did Magda do it? What is she going to do with the bodies?

Later, she shoots her father. Also, she shoots Hendrick. Hendrick rapes her. She's in love with Hendrick. She comes on to Klein-Anna in a way that is both really skeevy and really pathetic at the same time. Flying machines circle over her farm and broadcast voices to her in Spanish. When she is an old woman, a 12-year-old boy delivers a tax notice to her farm, and she tries to seduce him.

Magda is crazy, but it sneaks up on you. Pretty soon it's apparent that nothing she says can be trusted. She gives multiple conflicting accounts of the same events without ever acknowledging the contradictions. She grew up alone with her father, she had siblings whom she loved and who went off to the big city and never returned, she killed her father and a second wife, there was no second wife, did she hack her father to death with an axe or did she shoot him, did she shoot Hendrick or did he and Anna take over the farm once the baas was dead and is Hendrick now coming to her room at night and fucking her?

240. The voices speak to me out of machines that fly in the sky. They speak to me in Spanish.


242. How can I be deluded when I think so clearly?


The entire book is narrated in numbered paragraphs like this. Some are brief, one sentence, some are block paragraphs that go one for a page or two. Magda does think clearly and she speaks in elegiac monologues that are insightful and pathetic and sometimes just plain weird. She's not a very likeable person, this bitter, lonely old maid who might be being raped by the servant of her father whom she murdered after her father seduced/raped his servant's wife, or she might be offering herself to him, hungry for any kind of touch, or she might just be making all this up in her head. By the end of the book, when Magda is imagining flying machines speaking to her in Spanish and she's painting rocks white and arranging them on the ground to spell out messages to the men in them, when she's not trying to jump the bones of passing 12-year-olds, you could imagine Magda actually lying in a bed in an asylum somewhere, or maybe Magda doesn't even exist at all.

Very "literary" novels like this have an effect on me, and they are one of the reasons I undertook the books1001 challenge. J.M. Coetzee is a Nobel Prize-winning author, and this small book packs a lot of thoughtful shit and artful prose.

Now, in the vein of my recent Saturday Book Discussion, on the subject of how I'd rate it based on my enjoyment: I hated this fucking book. Okay, that's too strong. I can't truly say I hated it when it gave me so much to think and write about. But it's the densest 140 pages I've read in a long time. The prose is the sort that makes you say, "Damn, from what dark universe did the author pull those sentences?" but it's also the sort that is like a wall of text obscuring rather than revealing events. You have to read multiple times to figure out WTF is going on, what is Magda actually saying, wait a minute, what did she just do? Where are we and who are the actors in this scene and are we being metaphorical here or is this actually happening?

Also, J.M. Coetzee faithfully adheres to the rule observed by all Important Literary Dudes that Important Literary Novels must be full of lovingly crafted scatological imagery, descriptions of female body parts as dry fishy holes, and plenty of references to semen and spilling semen and the smell of semen.

Oy.

For such a short book, this one was a chore to get through, and is added to my list of "Books that were an experience to read and that I will never read again." J.M. Coetzee is an Important Literary Dude and this is an Important Literary Dude novel, with undeniable power and literary craftsmanship and Important Things to Say and please keep J.M. Coetzee the fuck away from me in the future.


Dust (1985)



I was thinking as I read it that it would make a fine artful movie directed by an ambitious director and a cast of actors with serious acting chops who want a bit of arthouse prestige, and lo, it turns out there was just such a film adaptation: 1985's Dust, directed by Marion Hansel. Unfortunately, Dust is not available on Netflix, and so I have not seen it.



Verdict: For those who like prosey prose prosed to prolixity, this is the book for you, because it's also pretty short. Or maybe you like immersing yourself in words that suck you under like a layer of bubble bath covering a tub of shit. In the Heart of the Country is deliberately ugly because it's telling an ugly story that would probably be talked to death in a colonial literature or women's studies course, and I won't say there aren't people who might enjoy it, but reading the 5 star reviews of this book, the ones who loved it mostly seem fascinated in the way that I was baffled and repelled by its abstruseness and perversity and by its fascinating, unhinged, unreliable narrator. Does it deserve to be on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die? Well, I don't know if this is Coetzee's best work, but yeah, it's skillful and deep enough that it probably deserves its place, but I am unconvinced that Coetzee deserves ten slots on the list, implying that you need to read ten Coetzee novels before you die. Like some of the other Important Literary Dudes I've read, one was enough.

This was my tenth assignment for the books1001 challenge.
Tags: books, books1001, literary, reviews
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