Tea with Coetzee

“Who could ever fathom the web of intersecting relationships in which we are both lost and found, where we either imprison or liberate ourselves on one and the same spot?”

— Jules Levinson

Some people we admire from close up and others from afar. Intimacy gives us the chance to observe privately heroic decisions, and the media (in all its permutations) allows us to follow the brilliance and bravery of figures we will never meet. But the distance between our public heroes and our private lives can close in strange and unforeseen circumstances. These moments catch our breath and suspend our inner narratives. Perhaps we run into a sports star in the elevator or meet a famous actor in the street. Suddenly, the banal weight of a body stands before us; or the intellect we regard shines out from clear eyes. If these encounters last more than seconds, we have the chance to measure our personally-fashioned idol against the human in our presence. This is usually a disquieting process, more about us than them.

When I was nineteen, a teacher gave me a strange, hard novel called Foe, written by the South African John Maxwell Coetzee. At the time, he had not yet won the Nobel Prize, and I wasn’t sure how to pronounce his name. I had to read Foe several times before I understood anything, but I was hooked from the first page: “There I lay sprawled on the hot sand, my head filled with the orange blaze of the sun, my petticoat spread all around me (which was all I had escaped with) baking dry upon me, tired, grateful, like all the saved.” A re-telling of Robinson Crusoe, Foe digs into the cruelty of colonialism and asks questions about representation and voice that I could barely comprehend; yet I knew that they were vital. As I was to experience with all of Coetzee’s novels, these questions stayed with me, working on me over time. When I read his Booker prize-winning Disgrace in graduate school, I could barely withstand the experience. How, I wondered, could anyone have withstood its writing?

The beauty and economy of Coetzee’s prose allow us to endure his narration of what Auden calls “human unsuccess.” Many of his novels offer allegorical renditions of life during and after Apartheid or similarly brutal anonymous regimes. Some of the violence in these stories has a political surround, but we see individuals wound and betray each other; there is no hiding behind dogma or the fault of larger movements. Critics have often been surprised by Coetzee’s “unwillingness” to write about South Africa. But he has broadened his critiques to a mythic plain that includes us all: all of our rubrics, all of our crimes. I have never been interested in moral philosophy, but Coetzee’s writing became an ethical compass in my life. You cannot read those books without hearing your own lies. As an author, he has pushed the genre of fiction to its outer-limits, writing false and posthumous biographies of the writer Coetzee, alongside the brilliant lectures of his female stand-in, the cranky and aged Elizabeth Costello. One of my writing tutors once told me to read the eponymous novel as a manual on the craft. “Outside of this book, “he said, “I have nothing to teach you.” There is nothing about Coetzee’s writing that I don’t admire, though there’s plenty I don’t understand.

I live in Buenos Aires, where Coetzee travels from Australia twice a year in order to lecture. Argentina is the center of nothing but itself, and it’s unusual for Nobel Laureates to visit, let alone return, to this locus of individual brilliance and institutional anarchy. But, like his character Elizabeth Costello in the story, “The Old Woman and Cats,” Coetzee has made a radical gesture and cast his lot with the underdog (or, in her case, the undercat). La Universidad de San Martín has established the Cátedra Coetzee, a program that brings writers from Sub-Saharan Africa and Australia to Argentina. The idea behind this collaboration is to foster a “Literature of the South” and greater dialogue for its writers. As part of this initiative, the University of San Martín has published translations into Spanish of several South African and Australian writers, an important project within a publishing industry than continues to shrink under commercial constraints and a disregard for writing outside the mainstream.

In addition to this project, Coetzee has edited his Biblioteca Personal with the Argentine publisher El Hilo de Ariadna. In the tradition of JL Borges’s Personal Library, these twelve volumes contain original critical essays and insight into Coetzee’s inner cannon. I work as an editor at El Hilo and have shaken an awed hand with Mr. Coetzee from time to time. I have also enjoyed the privilege of hearing him read, and I once accompanied him (nervously) to his car. On each occasion, I have felt the sharp, silent workings of his mind and his considerable reserve. Coetzee is considered media-shy and reluctant to give interviews. When he accepted the Nobel Prize for literature, he read a work of fiction (again about Robinson Crusoe) that the Guardian described as “richly oblique.”

Last week I was invited to spend an afternoon in the great writer’s company. The purpose of the meeting was to introduce Coetzee and Luis Moreno Ocampo, the Deputy Prosecutor of Argentina’s Junta Trials and the first Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. Luis is usually on a plane, and it took several days of emailing to set a time and date. We were to meet in the library room of the Park Hyatt hotel in Recoleta. My friend, the writer Anna Kazumi Stahl, would bring JMC, and I would bring LMO. I am lucky to have shared long conversations and a correspondence with Luis. I have watched him speak in private and in public, and he’s no different in either realm. He is always working, but he’s also eager to try something new, to make a connection, to laugh.

Coetzee had some questions about the Junta trials and Luis was a good person to answer them. But if I were a hostess planning a dinner party, I would never have seated them together. I cannot think of two more stridently different people, despite the overlap of their careers: attention to the suffering of the powerless, the shifting map of Africa and its recent history, the international lecture circuit and its podiums; both of these men continue to ask how we can be less brutal as human beings, and they are well acquainted with brutality. Coetzee has received the world’s highest literary awards and accepted them on his own terms. Luis has briefed the Security Council and issued arrest warrants for heads of state. They have risen to great heights professionally and maintained their core idiosyncrasies, unapologetic in their lack of convention. But, my, how different they are.

In the days before the meeting, I tried to imagine how the afternoon would unfold. Coetzee is well groomed, his white hair shining up in a wise comb. Famously vegetarian (he has written much on this subject), he is thin and holds his body with an inner alignment that seems to grow from his discretion. Luis has a serious sweet tooth and eyebrows that precede him when he enters a room. He slouches, then gesticulates and bursts forth with a new idea. I tried to remember that the outcome had nothing to do with me, that they had handled themselves in stranger situations and this was just tea.

What did happen is a reminder of how important it is to bring opposites together. I don’t know if John Maxwell Coetzee or Luis Moreno Ocampo would choose each other as dinner partners either, but their two-hour conversation touched on some of the most important questions we can ask ourselves. Luis is a passionate believer in creating global institutions as a safeguard for those unprotected (or worse) by their own governments. He cleaves to the law, official measures, judgment. Coetzee is more wary of action. As a writer whose books were read by government censors, he has an intellectual’s mistrust of institutions; as a person raised under Apartheid, he does not want for stories of institutionally-sponsored violence. As a world citizen, he appreciates our vast differences of belief. At one point, Coetzee leaned forward in his chair and asked: “Do you really believe that we can create an international standard for human rights on which people agree?” As a young man, Luis took on a police state and won. He has spent his life in the ring and doesn’t mind getting knocked out, even in the international press (a recent New York Times article offered a scathing portrait of his work in Kenya). Although his efforts at the International Criminal Court were often stymied, either by diplomats or the inability to gather evidence, he remains athletically optimistic. “Yes!” Luis answered, “We must.” This interchange raised one of the most interesting differences between these men: the mess of action versus the scruples of discourse.

When Coetzee sits down to write, worlds spring from his mind. He can control every aspect of his characters’ lives and he can ask as many questions as he wants, allowing nuance and subtlety to build in symphonic patterns, creating a landscape that is increasingly complex and unknowable. In his novel Diary of A Bad Year, the text is divided into three separate threads: the philosophical essays the main character is writing; his daily life, including the interactions with a woman he has hired to type his work; and the typist’s own point of view. In Summertime, Coetzee has died and a British biographer interviews significant people in the writer’s life. These sources present contradictory portraits and few are factual representations of the actual (living) Coetzee. In Foe, the narrator is a woman, Susan Barton and she asks the English writer Daniel Foe to tell her story of the shipwreck and Cruso’s island. Friday’s tongue has been cut out (supposedly by slavers) and his silence is one of the strongest voices in the book. Coetzee has re-written, modified, undermined, and complicated his stories to reveal greater truths, to situate himself and us, as readers, within a precise yet ever-expanding matrix.

Luis is an attorney. His job is the opposite: take a messy and complicated situation and make it less so. Create one narrative that will dominate all others. Collect facts, make an argument, and assert its unilateral truth. On the other side, an opponent will do the same. In the middle are killers and their victims. In the case of genocide and crimes against humanity, the victims often do not trust anyone; they have been betrayed by the Police, their neighbors, their governments, relief agencies, and perhaps even their own families. Luis once interviewed a woman whose son and husband were abducted in the middle of the night by Argentina’s military. When she went to the police station the next day to report the crime, one of the kidnapper’s took her deposition. This story is like a scene from a novel by Coetzee. But the role of the Prosecutor is to limit the narrative scope. He has to gather information and press it into one shape, to stand alone before a court and establish what he calls the truth. This requires, of course, leaving out everything else. It is one-sided, declarative and sometimes a failure.

In the final chapter of Elizabeth Costello, the writer is “At the Gate,” a generic border crossing into what seems to be the afterlife. In order to pass through, Costello must make a statement of belief. Repulsed by this reductive gesture, she writes the following:

“I am a writer, a trader in fictions…I maintain beliefs only provisionally: fixed beliefs would stand in my way. I change beliefs as I change my habitation or my clothes, according to my needs. On these grounds — professional, vocational — I request exemption from a rule of which I now hear for the first time, namely that every petitioner at the gate should hold to one or more beliefs.”

When her first petition is rejected outright, Costello thinks: “Writers are not lawyers, surely they must allow for that, allow for eccentricities of presentation;” she appropriates the poet Czeslaw Milosz’s self-description, “Secretary of the invisible.” Prior to this moment, over the novel’s course and her life, we have watched her struggle through complex layers of belief. She has declared her disgust at the wholesale slaughter of animals for human consumption and then spoken at a literary conference about a text she finds abhorrent, knowing the author is present. She has not wanted to declare anything, but she has. She has lost sleep, debating whether or not it is ethical to describe the most grotesque acts of human evil in fiction: should an artist breathe life into these events? As I re-read these passages, I was reminded of an investigator at the International Criminal Court who interviewed a child rescued from the army of the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. In the documentary film Prosecutor, this lawyer sits behind a desk and describes how the boy was forced to bite his brother to death. How can we not share such a story with the hope of fomenting outrage and the capture of such a criminal? At the same time, how can we turn this story into any kind of leverage? How can we locate such a horror within a narrative?

Luis has a simple answer: the law.

Luis Moreno Ocampo does not deny the world’s complexity, but he considers its appreciation a luxury. He takes action in ways that most people would not dare to undertake. The outcome is public, messy, contested. Coetzee does not take refuge in complexity. He gives it more space than the majority of minds can bear. His writing transforms our inner landscapes, hidden from view. The bodies of these men, their words, their habits and resources are so very different, but the agenda in the library room at the Park Hyatt was, in Elizabeth Costello’s words, to “hear what other folk have to say about the problem of evil.”

As JMC and LMO spoke, I kept remembering the scene in Waiting for the Barbarians where Colonel Joll describes his methods of torture:

“First, I get lies, you see — this is what happens — first lies, then pressure, then more lies, then more pressure, then the break, then more pressure, then the truth. That is how you get the truth.”

Luis has interviewed Colonel Jolls: mass murderers, men who have tortured and raped, planned genocide. Once I asked Luis what it’s like to face these people and he answered: “Because of how I met these men, I could not hate them. I saw them defenseless, frightened, even in tears.” In her defense at the final judgment, Elizabeth Costello admits that, as a writer, she will speak for murderers. When the officials press her on this point, she answers, “Do you think the guilty do not suffer too?”

Luis has also interviewed victims and weathered their stories: fathers who witnessed the rape of their wives and daughters, villagers who lost their villages. He has been privy time and again to the intimate details of the world’s evil, and he has stood in a position to act against it. Often, his best attempts have come to naught. Often, he has not been able to protect those who are unprotected. This is a heavy load to bear. Even his own arrogance cannot protect him from its weight. Perhaps that is why he continues to participate in world events, working to protect the Yazidi Kurds in Iraq or assisting the peace negotiations with the FARC in Colombia. How can he stop?

Like Coetzee, I am both wary and weary of conclusions. But like Luis, I am eager to believe that there is still a way forward, that something good can come of hearing what other people have to say about the problem of evil. Luis believes we must revolutionize the power structures of the world from the inside and transform them. Coetzee is interested in building a coalition of voices from what is perceived as the periphery.

From my easy spot in the quiet chair in the well-appointed room at the Park Hyatt, out of the public eye, never reminded of what I have done publically or published widely, I tried to reconcile the lives of these two unusual men, their work and words. I could not help but think of Raphael Lemkin, a man they both would have invited to dinner.

Lemkin was a writer and a lawyer. As a child, he read Quo Vadis and was haunted by the image of Nero throwing Christians to the lions. From an early age, he became obsessed with what he would later describe as genocide. Lemkin was amongst the few who recognized Turkey’s slaughter of the Armenian people for what it was, and he made a case at the 1933 League of Nations against this “Crime of Barbarity.” No one took him seriously and in Poland his ideals cost him his job. When a new genocide ravaged Europe, he begged his own family to leave Poland, but they stayed behind and all perished. Lemkin barely escaped the Nazi invasion and immigrated to the US during the war. On his first day as a lecturer at Duke University, he gave a keynote address in which he asked the comfortable audience: “If women, children, and old people would be murdered a hundred miles from here, wouldn’t you run to help? Then why do you stop this decision of your heart when the distance is five thousand miles instead of a hundred?”

Lemkin fought to his death to pass the UN Genocide Convention, though many considered him a nuisance, that crazy Pole going on about the murder of the Jews. After years of lobbying without any formal support, he collapsed at a bus stop in New York City and died alone in a hospital. In his autobiography Totally Unofficial, Lemkin writes: “Once I conceived of the destruction of groups as a crime, I could not rest quietly. Neither could I stop thinking about it. When I later coined the word ‘genocide,’ I found too an expression for my own use, but at the same time I was prepared to work more for the actual transformation of this word into the subject of an international treaty.”

Lemkin’s greatest contribution to the world, however, may have been this word. We have not done well respecting his treaty (the US didn’t even sign it until 1988), and the history of atrocity in the last hundred years is a dismal catalogue of non-intervention. But this word has changed our thinking. It helps us cross the bridge from ‘tribal violence’ or ‘ethnic hatred’ onto a common ground where we are all vulnerable and where we all deserve protection. Genocide, crimes against humanity. These words shape our thoughts. They increase our accountability, just as Coetzee’s novels make our own falsehoods painfully visible. Luis is always looking for a story, an emotional trigger to make people more interested in seeking justice for those who are forgotten. As a lawyer, he recognizes that he is not a writer.

As I sat with these two men, I remembered something that Lemkin said about loneliness: “When I felt that I was failing to inspire people, I would withdraw into myself, where I could face my conscience and draw moral force from meditation. To be successful with one’s fellow man one must learn to be fully alone in the sublime world of feelings and faith.”

After we said our goodbyes on the sidewalk, I had a keen sense of how alone these men have been in their professions and in their ideas. For a brief moment, I felt a taste of that isolation and it was acute.

But what one man has written I know the other holds as his ideal.

In Coetzee’s story, “The Old Woman and the Cats;” Elizabeth Costello has taken on the feral cats in the small village where she lives. She has also given refuge to Pablo, a mentally retarded young man, in order to prevent him from being institutionalized. Costello’s son John comes to visit and is shocked to find his mother living in a den of beasts. Through the dialogue between mother and son, Coetzee unleashes multiple lines of inquiry. As readers, we struggle even to keep up with their arguments, but we could grossly reduce the narrative to the conflict between logic and belief. Costello describes seeing a cat give birth in the street and the shift it inspires in her:

“A poor half-starved creature, bearing her children in a filthy, damp place, yet ready to give her life to defend them…That was when I made my decision. It came in a flash. It did not require any calculation, any weighing up of pluses against minuses. I decided that in the matter of the cats I would turn my back on my own tribe — the tribe of the hunters — and side with the tribe of the hunted. No matter what the cost.”

Luis Moreno Ocampo grew up in a divided family. Liberal intelligentsia on one side, military Generals on the other. He decided to be a lawyer at fourteen when he witnessed an unruly fight between his father (a legislator) and his uncles (career military men). The subject was the value of slow democratic change versus a swift coup. This conflict, which then became Argentina’s, grew violent (as did Argentina). There had to be another way, thought the young Luis, to solve the argument without coming to blows. Sixteen years later, when he prosecuted the military in the Junta trials, his own mother opposed him and one of his uncles, a man he loved, never spoke to him again.

“The Old Woman and the Cats” describes a different family dispute, but one in which the human heart hangs in the balance. As the academic John critiques his mother’s sentimentality, Costello makes this remarkable speech:

“I know what a choice is, you don’t have to tell me. I know what it feels like to choose to act. I know even better what it is to choose not to act… I could have chosen not to involve myself with the village’s cats. I know exactly how that process of deliberation and decision feels and tastes, exactly how little it weighs in the hand. The other way I speak of is not a matter of choice. It is an assent. It is a giving-over. It is a Yes without a No. Either you know what I mean or you don’t. I am not going to explain myself further.”

We do not have to be Nobel Laureates or international Prosecutors to ask ourselves about the problem of evil. Every day, we feel the weight of decision in our hands: raising our children, doing our work, eating (or caring for) animals, casting our votes. Inspiration does not have to be an external phenomenon. It can move, as did Raphael Lemkin’s, from the center outward, from what we believe to how we live.

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