A Childhood on the Edge of History

Charles van Onselen

  • Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life by J.M. Coetzee
    Secker, 171 pp, £12.99, September 1997, ISBN 0 436 20448 7

There was a moment – probably in the Thirties, as Smuts and Hertzog were embarking on political exercises aimed at ‘nation-building’ – when the term ‘English-speaking’ might have meant something in white South African society. In contemporary South Africa, however, ‘African’ and ‘Afrikaner’ dominate the debate. Both suggest a primordial attachment to the continent, fan rival nationalisms and render the phrase ‘English-speaking South African’ politically irrelevant. Noted largely for their economic success, English-speakers are destined to remain bit players in the unfolding political drama.

J.M. Coetzee, a member of a bilingual group (Afrikaans and English-speaking) that squeezed its way into white South African life in the twilight hours of Smuts and the gathering gloom of D.F. Malan and his successors, understands the marginality of the English-speakers. In a different context, and before more recent, inclusive attempts at nation-building, he noted:

I am one of many people in this country who have become detached from their ethnic roots, whether those roots were in Dutch South Africa or Indonesia or Britain or Greece or wherever, and have joined a pool of no recognisable ethnos whose language of exchange is English. These people are not, strictly speaking, English South Africans, since a large proportion of them – myself included – are not of British ancestry. They are merely South Africans (itself a mere name of convenience) whose native tongue, the tongue they have been born to, is English. And, as the pool has no discernible ethnos, so one day I hope it will have no predominant colour, as more people of colour drift into it. A pool, I would hope then, in which differences wash away.

In this way, and to the consternation of a certain class of cultural crusader for Afrikaans, English may yet assume a central, even critical role in the making of a new, transcendent national identity.

Yet becoming detached from one’s ‘ethnic roots’ involves processes every bit as complex and worthy of investigation as those that inform the making of real or imagined ethnic identities and their insinuation into nationalist ideologies. There are any number of studies that explore the emergence of the modern Afrikaner identity, the phenomenon of ethnic mobilisation and the triumphant assumption of power by the Nationalists in 1948. As yet, however, we have little understanding of the processes by which English-speakers were progressively deracinated and marginalised. What we need to explain is why, in the period between the mid-Thirties and the mid-Fifties, white Afrikaans-speakers from rural communities, people like Coetzee’s parents, felt that they had to abandon the openness of the Karoo and other rural areas for the physical, social and psychic constraints of the more ‘English’ towns and cities of industrialising South Africa. In his memoir, written in the third person, Coetzee looks back on a childhood which has left him with powerful ties to the countryside: ‘All farms are important,’ he tells us, ‘farms are places of freedom, of life.’

As the movement off the land gained pace and the rural refugees put down their first tentative roots in the towns, however, forces they had not fully anticipated twice prised them almost clear of suburban soil. The out-break of the war in 1939 asked questions of these migrants which had as much to do with their political identity and party affiliation (‘his father likes the United Party and Smuts’) as they did with their commitment to the cause of global freedom. The advent of Malan’s Afrikaner Nationalist Government in 1948 often had devastating consequences for the careers of Smuts supporters who had come up with equivocal or ‘wrong’ answers about the Imperial war effort. The resulting scars are evident in the family life of the Coetzees, as in that of many others. ‘When his father wants to get at his mother, in their late-night quarrels in the kitchen, he taunts her about her brother who did not join up.’ More seriously, Coetzee’s ‘father lost his job in Cape Town, the job with the title his mother was so proud of – Controller of Letting – when Malan beat Smuts in 1948’.

The increasingly troubled former Controller of Letting was only one of several hundred political suspects whom the incoming government removed from the Armed Forces and the Civil Service in the late Forties and early Fifties, in an attempt to make the country safe for their narrow Afrikaner nationalism: an endeavour which inflicted a plague on the country that lasted for half a century. The price that this purge exacted from its white victims, and the radicalising political potential that it held for their children – J.M. Coetzee’s generation – awaits a chronicler, as a third generation of ‘English-speakers’ wrestles with the ethical complexities of a new round of ‘affirmative action’ in sectors of the economy designed to accommodate black South Africans. Be that as it may, Coetzee’s father’s loss of his job, the family’s subsequent move to Worcester, about a hundred miles north of Cape Town, along with the parents’ decision to have the boy educated in English, the language of the socially ambitious, forms an important part of the backdrop to these ‘Scenes from Provincial Life’.

The writing of Boyhood must have brought home to Coetzee just how persistent some of the challenges that he struggled so successfully with in the past can be. Sorting through the social debris of family life for fragments from which to reconstruct images of childhood is inevitably a historical exercise. For biographers, perhaps even more than autobiographers, the sociological imagination is required to recapture early youth on paper. The trick is to evoke a distinctive time and place in order to situate the ambiguities, coincidences, ironies and paradoxes that beset the young protagonist as he takes his first steps towards the even more bewildering world of adolescence.

Yet this very attention to detail threatens to subjugate literature to historiography – a danger which Coetzee has spent his life circumventing, with intriguing results. In the Heart of the Country, Life and Times of Michael K, Foe and Waiting for the Barbarians all bear testimony to his mastery of allegory and narrative voice to evoke a quality of other-worldliness. In a lean, almost mathematical prose, everything is sacrificed to clarity of thought and expression, born of deep and obviously painful introspection.

It takes courage to bring this method, and the chilly, even desolate analytical style that comes with it, to bear on an enquiry into one’s own childhood. And there is a price to pay. Anyone trying to discover something as simple as what the M in J.M. Coetzee stands for is not going to find it here. The third-person narrative distances the reader even further from a boy who is already intensely – and intentionally – private, at home in the world of the Children’s Encyclopaedia, The Swiss Family Robinson or make-believe Test Matches involving a bowling contraption which removes the need for other corporeal players. Sometimes it seems as if the boy came into the world fully formed – a world where birthdays, gifts, films and radio appear to have little importance. Reaching alternately for binoculars or a magnifying glass to orientate themselves, historians will scan Boyhood for comforting historical markers, incidents or events that would place this sensitive boy’s experiences more precisely within the larger cycles of life. One longs for more detail – he has no date of birth, for instance – but one is always kept at arm’s length.

Much of the book portrays an emotionally circumscribed suburban childhood, with just a few odd moments of spontaneous fun, usually far away on Karoo farms, where the boy is obviously more at home. ‘He and his brother help with stuffing the bales, jumping up and down on the mass of thick, hot, oily wool. His cousin Agnes is there too, visiting from Skipperskloof. She and the sister join in; the four of them tumble over each other, giggling and cavorting as if in a huge featherbed.’ Not surprisingly, given that the boy is so at home in the countryside, cruelty and devilment manifest themselves back in town, where he sucks up ants into a vacuum cleaner, or joins his brother in pelting a neighbour’s roof with eggs. But these moments are rare. The reflective language of the adult looking back at the child makes it difficult to capture the exuberance of a ‘normal’ youth or the delights of subversion, which occur out of range of the parental eye. But Coetzee is convinced from an early age that the asymmetries of parental power in the family mean that he is not part of ‘a normal household’. He inhabits a world almost without humour, where, with one or two exceptions, not even his teachers, let alone his few friends, earn themselves nicknames. It’s all relentlessly serious: ‘nothing he experiences in Worcester, at home or at school, leads him to think that childhood is anything but a time of gritting the teeth and enduring.’

His relationship with his mother, known to him and other members of the family only as Dinny, is complex. While appreciative of her love and the unqualified support he needs, he can treat her in savage and tyrannical ways. ‘He is too close to his mother, his mother is too close to him.’ His relationship with his father, once perhaps a psychologically stable Controller of Letting, subsequently a vulnerable, nondescript ‘book-keeper’ at Wolf Heller’s monstrous canning works in Worcester, later a disintegrating personality seeking unsuccessfully to establish a small practice as an attorney and, later still, an unemployed drunk in Cape Town, is in some ways less problematic but very much more harrowing. ‘He does not like his father’ and the growing distance between them is painful in the extreme. ‘There is a smell of a man’s sweat. In the gloom he can make out his father lying in his bed. From the back of his throat comes a soft gargling as he breathes ... Beside the bed is a chamber-pot in which cigarette-stubs float in brownish urine. He has not seen anything uglier in his life.’

Extraordinary delicacy characterises the young Coetzee’s interactions with the Coloured people who made up the majority of white South Africa’s workforce in the Western Cape at the time. At a stage in his life when most white boys would be conducting their first crude experiments with racist terminology, ‘he’ is already showing an acute awareness of the horror of South African race relations. Sitting with his friends in the Globe Café enjoying chocolate fudge sundaes as a birthday treat, he becomes aware of ‘the ragged Coloured children standing at the window looking in on them’. He thinks of enlisting help from the Globe’s immigrant proprietor. ‘But if he were to get up and go to the Portuguese, what would he say? They are spoiling my birthday, it is not fair, it hurts my heart to see them? Whatever happens, whether they are chased away or not, it is too late, his heart is already hurt.’ Even on the farm, where the smog of racism settles less easily than in the city, he is uncomfortable in the presence of house servants, such as Tryn. ‘He does not know how to answer her when she speaks to him in the third person, calling him die kleinbaas, the little master, as if he were not present. It’s all deeply embarrassing.’

At school there are tortures of a more direct kind, often in the shape of ‘Afrikaans boys’, big and brutal, who torment him and others. Given the chance of opting out of school assembly on religious grounds, he instantly adopts a Roman Catholic identity, a choice which is difficult to sustain amid close and persistent questioning from practising Catholics. Yet this awkward pretence, which nudges him into the company of the Jewish boys, who are obviously beyond the pale when it comes to attendance at school assemblies, allows him to position himself on what he perceives as the right side of the great English-Afrikaans faultline dividing white society:

He thinks of himself as English. Though his surname is Afrikaans, though his father is more Afrikaans than English, though he himself speaks Afrikaans without any English accent, he could not pass for a moment as an Afrikaner ... They are of course South Africans, but even South Africanness is faintly embarrassing, and therefore not talked about, since not everyone who lives in South Africa is a South African, or not a proper South African.

Down here at the southern tip of Africa, we are told that we are in the throes of building a nation. Again. At the turn of the century Alfred Milner set energetically about the task of uniting four separate colonial authorities, pursuing short-sighted policies of Anglicisation in the pre-Union period with such vigour that they did much to fashion the ensuing politics of ethnic resentment within white society. Most of the interwar years were spent, in a country with redefined borders, trying to effect a rapprochement between white South Africa’s two minuscule official language groupings. The triumph of Afrikaner nationalism in 1948 not only settled that argument but served to entrench white domination over a subject majority. Mass resistance to the politics of attrition, and the first ever democratic election, held in April 1994, righted that wrong. Somebody, somewhere, had stumbled upon a truth: we now have 11 ‘official’ languages. Each turn of the wheel has brought forth ambiguous and often contradictory responses from members of regionally-ensconced ethnic minorities and majorities, as they cast about for new identities in their family, communal and national settings. Exhausted, South Africans now choose to see themselves as constituting a ‘rainbow nation’. It is an exercise that remains fraught with tension and pain.

Boyhood is set in the aftermath of one of our many political rebirths. Those who want only to understand where the reclusive Coetzee and the deeper inspiration for some of his novels come from, along with the anguish that hones such skill and sensitivity in a troubled society, should start by reading his childhood memoir. But broader readings, too, are possible. We have at last a place of our own on the continent, a little time has elapsed, and it seems as if we have begun to develop a more encompassing identity. It’s not an unproblematic process. Children, parents and extended families either cope with Africa’s deep subterranean forces or buckle under the pressure, as Coetzee would well understand.