Sunday, July 29, 2012

Gripping expat novel, Youth, by J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee's novel, Youth
On a recent work-trip to Pisa, Italy, after setting the group up with advice, directions and a meeting point to meet me at a few hours later, i had some time to myself. i had not foreseen this free time though so i had brought no book of my own or any other personal stuff to pass the time, so i wandered into an Italian university book store. In Italian, i asked the shop keeper whether he had any books in English. Without speaking he lead me to one book shelf full of English language books.

As i thumbed through classics like Shakespeare and fads like Harry Potter, one book figuratively jumped out into my lap. From the moment i laid eyes on it i knew that it was what i had come into the shop looking for:

Youth, by J.M. Coetzee, the South African writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years back. At that time i read Waiting for the Barbarians and was impressed by Coetzee's expressive, concise language and interesting showing (not telling) of social ideas.

The book's main character is a young, South African man who is passionate about poetry and about doing things well. He is uncomfortable with his home country, its political situation and the effects that that situation had on social sensibilities. He was not blind or conservative enough to go along with Apartheid attitudes, which saw black Africans as pests in their own land. Nor was he radical (or confused) enough to think he had anything in common with those black Africans with whom he empathized. And perhaps worst of all, he believed that that backwardness of Afrikaaner politics also left their culture behind in terms of poetry and art, love and passion, any cultural measure worth noting.

So he saves up his money and expatriates, to England.

The bulk of the book takes place there in England as we watch this character search for himself/happiness/satisfaction through a parade of ridiculous adventures with women, Europe and the (assumed) voices in his head. He finds the English women too picky to choose him and his fellow foreigners he judges below himself and treats them poorly. He seemed to be both in love with and loathe his own unhappiness. The one thing he does seem sure of though, is that he is an expatriate, that he does not want to end up back in South Africa.

Some fascinating perspectives that the book brings forth from the 1960s: 

When the character is fired from IBM and later hired by and English company working to compete with the Americans in computer technology, he makes friends with a colleague, Ganapathy, who is Indian, but lived in America and worked in computer programming there. The friend tells him he should go to work in the States, that America has more of a mentality for big ideas. But,
"he has read Allen Ginsberg, read William Burroughs. He knows what America does to artists: sends them mad, locks them up, drives them out. 
'You could get a fellowship at a universtiy,' says Ganapathy. 'I got one, you would have no trouble.'
He stares hard. Is Ganapathy really such an innocent? There is a Cold War on the go. America and Russia are competing for the hearts and minds of Indians, Iraquis, Nigerians; scholarships to universities are among the inducements they offer. The hearts and minds of whites are of no interest to them, certainly not the hearts and minds of a few out-of-place whites in Africa." (p. 151-152)

Then, the progress and world of computers. The narrator, who is the main character though he remains unnamed, get his first employment in England with IBM, billed as the top company in its infant field, and as an American entity. He works on a room-sized computer that helps collect, collate and calculate data. At that time, there were so few functional computers in all of England that he sometimes has to take a long train ride to use the one computer during the night when nobody else is using it. Obviously, iPods were a long way off 50years ago. 

"He is reading the history of logic," the narrator tells us of himself, in a weird twist of omniscience that happens repeatedly in the book and that creates an air of confident wisdom,

"pursuing an intuition that logic is a human invention, not part of the fabric of being, and therefore (there are many intermediate steps, but he can fill them in later) that computers are simply toys invented by boys (lead by Charles Babbage) for the amusement of other boys. There are many alternative logics, he is convinced (but how many?), each just as good as the either-or. The threat of the toy by which he earns his living, the threat that makes it more than just a toy, is that it will burn "either-or" paths in the brains of its users and thus lock them irreversibly into its binary logic.
He pores over Aristotle, over Peter Ramus, over Rudolf Carnap. Most of what he reads he does not understand, but he is used to not understanding. All he is searching for at the present is the moment in history when either-or is chosen and and/or discarded." (p. 159-160)
If this had been actually written in the 60s, i would say this was the stuff of a prophet, or that the author was really deeply in touch with the universal truths that are being so widely neglected today (as i think Mike Dooley, or Neale Donald Walsch, or the Dalai Lama actually are). But even for being written 10years ago, this observation on our current culture is remarkable - an evil influence i had yet to pin on computers and their use.

The other incredible insight from the 1960s perspective of this narrator is about the Cold War. He describes it as, "this quarrel between Britain and America on the one hand and Russia on the other." (p. 164) i think that first part is easy to forget - Britain was still losing/coming to terms with losing its grip on its Empire. Certainly no Brit, and especially no recently-bombed-Londoner was going to have much sympathy for Germany right then, but with the Nazis gone the race to decide who the world's next hegemon would be. The US had moved ahead in the race not just with their military effort and leadership in World War II, but perhaps more importantly by financing the reconstruction of most of the war-torn countries. It was refreshing though to see Coetzee's character's perspective on the Vietnam War:

"In a photography on the front page of the Guardian, a Vietnamese soldier in American-style uniform stares helplessly into a sea of flames. 'SUICIDE BOMBERS WREAK HAVOC IN S. VIETNAM," reads the headline. A band of Viet-Cong sappers have cut their way through the barbed wire around the American air base at Pleiku, blown up twenty-four aircraft, and set fire to the fuel storage tanks. They have given up their lives in the action. 
Ganapathy, who shows him the newspaper, is exultant; he himself feels a surge of vindication. Ever since he arrived in England the British newspapers and BBC have carried stories of American feats of arms in which Viet-Cong are killed by the thousand while the Americans get away unscathed. If there is ever a word of criticism of America, it is of the most muted kind. He can barely bring himself to read the war reports, so much do they sicken him. Now the Viet-Cong have given their undeniable, heroic reply. 
...despite his (Ganapathy)'s admiration for American efficiency and his longing for American hamburgers,"  (p. 152)
both characters are definitely sympathetic to the East in the Cold War divide. The narrator, assuming the Viet-Cong would not ignore his origins and let him help as a soldier or suicide bomber or even a porter, turns to the Vietnamese allies. He writes a letter to the Chinese embassy in London, offering to teach English in China with or without pay, to do his part in the war effort. When no reply arrives, he gets nervous. "Is he going to his lose his job and be expelled from England on account of his politics? If it happens, he will not contest it. Fate will have spoken; he is prepared to accept the word of fate." (p. 153)

i highly recommend this author for both the powerful prose and the fascinating, rare perspective.

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