Searching for Coetzee in the South African Veldt

BOYHOOD: SCENES FROM PROVINCIAL LIFE by J.M. Coetzee Viking $22.95, 166 pp.

Autobiographies tend to fall into three broad categories: lives of the rich and famous, twisted tales of the dysfunctional and portraits of artists as young scamps. Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, the new memoir by J.M. Coetzee, a South African novelist and Booker Prize-winner, ostensibly falls into the final category. In this short and elegantly written book, Coetzee chronicles his childhood in Worcester, a dusty settlement outside of Cape Town. Between the ages of eight and thirteen, the young Coetzee struggles with his Afrikaans identity, quarrels with his parents and pursues a secret double-life.

Despite a surface gloss of style, Boyhood never attains the frankness and intimacy that characterize successful autobiography. Coetzee's spare style, well-suited for drawing out psychological tensions, isn't appropriate for this subject matter. What makes Coetzee tick--and what drives him to write--remain unsolved mysteries.

Boyhood is written in the third person, an unusual perspective for a memoir. Unfortunately, this stylistic gimmick doesn't prove as unsettling or provocative as it promises. Boyhood's narrator, unlike those of other third-person memoirs (such as the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein, Class of 1898), never develops a personality distinct from Coetzee's. The third-person voice just allows Coetzee to avoid intimacy with the reader, to talk around himself without adopting a confessional tone.

Boyhood is unusual not only in style, but in motive as well. While most writers of memoirs blame their parents for turning them into screw-ups, Coetzee takes a decidely unconventional turn. The young Coetzee resents his privilege. At school, he is the model student, finishing first in all his classes without a semblance of strain. At home, he is "an irascible despot," displacing his ineffectual father as the household's center of attention: "He has never worked out the position of his father in the household. In fact, it is not obvious to him by what right his father is there at all." His mother, in contrast, dotes on him with smothering affection. Why can't he be like the other normal Afrikaans boys, he asks himself, who can't afford shoes and get beaten by their fathers?

Coetzee's double-life becomes more difficult to balance as social tensions increase. As the child of Anglicized Afrikaners who left the farm, Coetzee is accepted by neither the local Afrikaans children nor Worcester's English society. His lack of religious education causes further problems at school. When cornered by the teacher and asked if he is "Christian, Roman Catholic, or Jewish," Coetzee's passion for classical civilization inspires him to choose "Roman" Catholicism, although his family background is in fact Protestant. Ostracized by the Afrikaans students, he finds his only friends among the other outcasts--the Catholics and Jews.

Although religious discrimination runs rampant in Worcester, apartheid is a shadowy but pervasive force. On the surface, Coetzee's childhood seems free of apartheid's uglier manifestations. Worcester has a small "coloured" population, consisting mainly of domestic servants, and virtually no blacks. What social conflict Coetzee faces from day-to-day appears mostly as class and not racial conflict: Coetzee is embarrassed by his shoes and natty clothes, contrasted with the scraggly appearance of the local Afrikaaners.

Nonetheless, Coetzee suggests, apartheid's insitutionalized system of contradictions was responsible for many of his family's dysfunctions. Blacks are simultaneously revered for their wisdom and treated as pariahs; Jewish doctors are praised, but Jewish conspiracies condemned. It's easy to read Coetzee's internal contradictions as manifestations of apartheid's perverse order.

The best-written chapters in Boyhood treat the pastoral, not political, aspects of South African life. Coetzee lavishes description on Voelfontein, the Coetzee family farm. The young Coetzee, who feels estranged by Worcester society, "must go to the farm becasue there is no place on earth he loves more or can imagine loving more." In his eyes, the farm is a kind of Eden from which he and his parents have been expelled, destined forever after to eke out a living in dusty provincial towns.

Coetzee's taut style proves effective in describing the arid beauty of the veldt: "The kraal walls ramble for miles up and down the hillside. Nothing grows here: the earth has been trampled flat and killed forever, he does not know how: it has a stained, unhealthy, yellow look."

Considering all his childhood idols--cricket players, Russian tank drivers, school teachers--it's difficult to imagine why the grown-up Coetzee decided to write for a living. We keep expecting some pivotal moment in Boyhood that never arrives, an epiphany in which the adolescent boy realizes he is destined to write. After all, isn't the author of a memoir, especially if he's a distinguished author, supposed to explain how he came to set pen to paper in the first place? The young Coetzee, while fond of books and learning, does not seem particularly driven to his present vocation.

The only episode in Boyhood that might pass for an explanation comes in the final two lines: "How will he keep them all in his head, all the books, all the people, all the stories? And if he does not remember them, who will?" Why God has chosen the 13-year-old Coetzee as designated rememberer is desparately unclear. It's a lame ending to a memoir that skirts, but never directly probes, the author's inner life.