Riding his bicycle home from the grocery store, Paul Rayment gets hit by a hot-rodding teenager in the opening scene of J.M. Coet-zee’s latest novel,
Slow Man. At the hospital, the doctors say they will save as much as possible of Paul’s crushed right leg. But when he awakes from surgery, all that remains is a bandaged stump. “To himself he does not call it a stump. . . . If he has a name for it, it is le jambon. Le jambon keeps it at a nice, contemptuous distance.”
Once discharged, Paul stubbornly refuses the prosthesis that would allow him to walk again, as well as to ride his treasured bicycle (the wiry Coetzee is himself a dedicated pedaler). Although still in his sixties and in good health otherwise, Paul determines that the vigorous days are over. A retired photographer, divorced and living alone in his quaint Australian flat, Paul views the years ahead as a protracted segue into death. He is a prideful man who takes a fall and learns to accept his losses.
In Slow Man, Coetzee confronts by analogy his own predicament, that of the obsolete dissident. Until recently, the problem for Coetzee, born in Cape Town in 1940 of English and Dutch extraction, had been how to write honestly as a white man about apartheid. A former computer scientist, analytical by default, he never flinched (in his studies of colonial literature and censorship) at placing his own ancestors’ history under the gaze of his microscope.
Yet as a fiction writer, Coetzee generally prefers to address his nation’s shame by extrapolating questions of power. His debut novel, Dusklands (1974), offers two ways of looking at an empire as text. The first is a portrait of an American military propagandist who experiences a psychotic rupture while preparing his report on Vietnam; the second is a fictionalized translation of a journal kept by Coetzee’s jungle-treading 18th-century forebear. The novels that immediately followed— In the Heart of the Country (1977), Waiting for the Barbarians (1981), The Life & Times of Michael K (1983)—are even more abstract, more allegorical, as stark and unforgiving as a veldt or the stage in Beckett. Each of these books imagines the dissolution of power in a plainly colonial but nevertheless ahistorical setting. Were it not for the absence of spaceships and tentacled extraterrestrials, these novels, with their highly specialized circumstances, might even be called science fiction.
Slow Man, by contrast, unfolds resolutely in our shared historical present —that is, in the wake of apartheid’s collapse. Close in temperament to the sober realism of his most recent novels, Disgrace (1998) and Elizabeth Costello (2003), Slow Man also has the whiff of mortality found in his memoirs, Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002). Resigned initially to his crippled fate, Paul rouses from bitterness when the ministrations of an émigré nurse, Marijana Jokic, rekindle his passions. Before romance can bloom, however, the prickly Melbourne novelist Elizabeth Costello enters the scene. She appears at Paul’s doorstep to read him the first sentence of a work in progress, which also happens to be the first sentence of Slow Man. “You came to me,” Elizabeth explains. “Also, along with Miroslav Jokic the Croatian refugee—yes, that is his name, Miroslav, his friends call him Mel—and your inchoate attachment to his wife.” At first blush, this deus ex machina—lifted from another Coetzee novel—is an unwelcome interloper. Isn’t Elizabeth’s intrusion just the sort of postmodern claptrap one expects from a recently crowned Nobel laureate feeling lazy and out of ideas? After all, Coetzee has played the meta card before—with mixed results—in Foe (1986), a refurbished Robinson Crusoe, and in The Master of Petersburg (1994), a seedy procedural whose disheveled sleuth is Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
In fact, Elizabeth’s arrival suggests that the stakes in this novel about aging are personal. Since the demise of apartheid, the vegetarian Coetzee has shifted his attention from racial injustice to the atrocities that humans commit against animals. For Elizabeth, his activist alter ego, he even invented The Lives of Animals (2001), a collection of “fictional” lectures. These forays into new political territory, like Elizabeth’s, have been roundly and unfairly maligned, dismissed as the half-baked rantings of an author peering at the horizon of his own irrelevance.
However, it’s another recluse, Paul, whom Coetzee resembles most here. Because of Elizabeth’s hectoring, we learn that Paul is a Frenchman by birth, who tried unsuccessfully to repatriate as an adult and ultimately returned to Australia, a place to which he feels no attachment. “Home is the place where the fire burns in the hearth, where you come to warm yourself,” he says. “I seem to be cold wherever I go.”
Currently residing in Australia and having lived in the United States and England, Coetzee has spent a life in exile. He has no country, and his new cause goes ridiculed. Slow Man closes with Paul’s grave refusal to change course. In this gesture of defiance, the peerless Master of Cape Town makes clear that while he could return to the subject of South Africa, he can never go home.