Dusklands: Coetzee's Essential Debut Novel

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Because the enigmatic South African novelist J. M. Coetzee's first novel Dusklands is out of print everywhere I've looked, I always figured the book must have been a weak start to a great career.

Dusklands was published in 1974, years before Coetzee started hitting his powerful stride with The Life and Times of Michael K. and Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello. Since I couldn't buy the book in bookstores or order a new copy online, I satisfied myself at first by reading summaries of what Dusklands appeared to be: a divided narrative constructed of two invented "found manuscripts", the first an American military psychologist's report of propaganda efforts during the Vietnam War, the second an early Dutch South African explorer's report of a journey into the unknown regions of the continent.

Eventually, as I recently waited for Coetzee's new novel The Childhood of Jesus to be released in my country, I broke down and ordered a used copy of Dusklands online. It probably wouldn't be any great Coetzee, I figured, but I wouldn't mind a small minor work, a glimpse at the uncertain youthful voice of a later genius.

Oh. My. God. Did I have it wrong.

Now that I've read this tour de force, which may be the most bleak and upsetting book J. M. Coetzee has ever written, I am wondering if it is out of print for a completely different reason. Perhaps the book is out of print because its horrific violence and sense of menace is too hard for readers to handle. Imagine a combination of Joseph Conrad and Harold Pinter -- with a lot more blood and torture than each. But this disturbing book appears also to be at least a small masterpiece. I remained gripped and compelled by the narrative for days after reading the final pages.

The bisected narrative of the Vietnam War psychologist and the 18th century Boer explorer presents few common plot points, except that both stories are journeys into horror. In the first of the two texts, the brilliant but confused desk worker named Eugene Dawn explains the deft logic behind some of the propaganda techniques used by invading USA forces in North Vietnam. Dawn describes why some programs to destroy enemy morale among pre-literate rural Vietnamese societies succeed while other programs fail. His vaguely Jungian interpretations of the mythological power of political messaging in Vietnam are believable and insightful, but this talented psychological analyst turns out to be himself unhinged in an unexpectedly sinister way. This half of the book leaves the reader with a sense of being dropped off by a speeding bus into the ninth circle of hell.

The second half of the book continues the demonic ride. We meet a bigoted Dutch farmer who likes to smirk and rant about the local "Hottentots", natives (also known as Namaqua) of southern Africa, who he and his fellow colonial settlers joyfully kill at will, at times hunting them down from atop galloping horses. This settler is leading an expedition into inland Africa, manned mostly by a few "loyal" Hottentots, which turns to disaster when they are all taken prisoner by and treated cruelly by a native tribe. Some of the explorer's own men "go native", enraging him and inspiring him to eventually instigate the book's second violent climax: a murder rampage through an Namaqua village that will remind readers (though the connection is never made) of atrocities committed by American soldiers in Vietnamese villages.

The straight-faced double narrative never circles back to Vietnam, though. Instead, it ends with an ironic flourish, as later commentators summarize the murderous explorer's manuscript only by celebrating his famous legends, completely glossing over his crimes, and replacing the facts we have just read with ludicrously trivial fragments of heroic myth.

Throughout both found texts, familiar J. M. Coetzee themes abound. The concept of fatherhood is weighed and deconstructed. Sexual anxiety runs amok. Most Coetzee-esque of all, the author's identity and presence is subverted in various comic meta-fictional twists that recall two of his most recent books, the multi-voiced Diary of a Bad Year and the pseudo-biographical Summertime (which told the story of a dead novelist named John Coetzee). "Coetzee" appears by name within Dusklands, first as the stern and unlikable boss of the sensitive (crazy) psychologist Eugene Dawn, and then as the Dutch explorer himself, whose name is Jacobus Coetzee.

Taking it further, Jacobus Coetzee's original Dutch manuscript is also "translated" and edited by later people named Coetzee, including J. M. Coetzee. The bibliographic mumbo-jumbo surrounding this section of the book is presented with such a straight face that we almost believe it's real. Of course, the only thing Jacobus Coetzee's narrative was translated from is J. M. Coetzee's vivid imagination. Which perhaps does speak a foreign language -- a spookily familiar one.

Beyond the meta-fictional structure, the Dusklands stories also appear to provide several keys to later Coetzee novels. For example: in Disgrace, the professor David Lurie finds himself strangely offended at the way his awkward and unconfident young object of attraction Melanie (who is, presumably, of native African ancestry) "wiggles her bottom" when she appears in a college play. In Dusklands, the explorer Jacobus Coetzee is angered by a Hottentot woman shaking her "high rump" at him during a suggestive dance. Given Coetzee's tendency to tie threads between his novels, we can only assume that the moment in Disgrace was meant to echo the moment in Dusklands.

Several other Coetzee connections spring from this book. The fact that his first novel was a Rosetta stone of his later themes makes it all the more inexplicable that Dusklands is out of print. It's an essential Coetzee work.

I was so floored by the power of this debut novel (which was, apparently, fairly well received at first publication in 1974) that I began looking for commentary as soon as I finished it, and found many positive reactions to the book. A review at the blog The Mookse and the Gripes matched my own conclusions to a remarkable degree:

I am on a Coetzee completion project. Though I have liked Coetzee’s early books that I have read, I have not liked them as much as his later books, so I was a bit nervous to go back and read Coetzee’s first book, Dusklands (1974). I wondered if I would find it an overwritten (a worry because I greatly admire Coetzee’s pared down prose) or under-developed first novel, but this book is exceptional. Coetzee, it seems, was on his Nobel track from the very beginning. It’s a shame that this book is basically out of print.

Yes, Coetzee certainly was on his Nobel track from the very beginning, and Dusklands must be brought back into print in the United States of America immediately. Nearly all his other books are in print. Penguin Books, what are you thinking?

Could it really be possible that Dusklands is out of print because it's such a disturbing work? Could this book be that mythical creature, the novel so truthful that noone can bear to read it?

One thing's for sure: Dusklands carries a gut-punching message. It's a message about war, about mythology, about genocide, about ethnicity, about colonialism, about love -- and the message is certainly no less relevant today than it was in 1974.

7 Responses to "Dusklands: Coetzee's Essential Debut Novel"

by BB on

This sounds amazing, I think it's high time I started a Coetzee's completion project of my own.

by Eamon on

Thanks Levi, I hadn't read that one. I'll check it out.

by Baroque on

Yes! I found Dusklands at a bookstore years ago, and picked it up because I liked Disgrace. I loved it, and I still remember it vividly. I haven't seen much written about it, either, so it's great to see this review.

by mnaz on

excellent stuff. growing up during the cold war, i was of course always told that only the commies used state propaganda to further their agenda.

what a messed-up century or two ....

by Adam on

great novel. go out and get it.

by dawie malan on

you got that one right. his second, in the heart of the country, is the other work of genius. none after that, although he always leaves one feeling weird. what did you make of the childhood of jesus?

by Levi Asher on

Thanks, Dawie. Strangely enough, I haven't read "Childhood" yet. Saving it for a quiet moment (quiet moments have been hard to find lately). Based on the reviews I've read, though, I'm going to like it.

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