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J. M. Coetzee (John Michael Coetzee) Biography

(1940– ), (John Michael Coetzee), Dusklands, In the Heart of the Country, Dust, Waiting for the Barbarians

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South African novelist, born in Cape Town, and educated at the Universities of Cape Town and Texas. Dusklands (1974) consists of two novellas (‘The Vietnam Project’ and ‘The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee’); madness and hunger for power on the part of both protagonists, one a technocrat obsessed by the Vietnam war, and the other a Boer patriarch on the verge of paranoia, are at the heart of both. His next three novels may be described as Kafkaesque parables of a South African society in danger of disintegration. Unlike his compatriot André Brink, Coetzee's austere novels explore the Afrikaner psyche in a more oblique, stylistically more innovative, though equally apocalyptic manner. In the Heart of the Country (1977) depicts a young woman in an isolated farmstead who slides into anarchic violence and madness; it was made into a distinguished film, Dust (1985), with Jane Birkin, directed by Marion Hansel. Waiting for the Barbarians (1980; James Tait Black Memorial Prize), set in a desolate, mythical country, is narrated by a magistrate who faces crucial decisions when the inquisitorial Colonel Joll warns him against a ‘barbarian’ invasion. The implacably bleak allegory Life and Times of Michael K (1983; Booker Prize) has as its protagonist an ugly and slow-witted gardener in a Cape Town park; caught up in civil war, he desperately tries to find safety for himself and his mother. Foe (1986) is a retelling of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe in a contemporary context. Set in Cape Town, Age of Iron (1990) focuses on a mother, a retired classics teacher, writing to her daughter, who is dying of cancer. Her observations are those of an anxious white liberal. The Master of Petersburg (1994) is a novel based on the later life of Dostoevsky. Coetzee's non-fiction works include White Writing (1988), a selection of the novelist's essays on ‘the Culture of Letters in South Africa’, and Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews (1992).

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