Books: Madness and misery on the farm

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In the Heart of the Country

by J M Coetzee

Vintage pounds 6.99

J M Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1940, and has devoted much of his writing career to exploring what it means to be part of the English diaspora in an apartheid state. This plunges him straight into the issue of race, and, more significantly perhaps, into questions of identity. The English grouping in South Africa has no claims to ethnic purity - everyone is implicated in the morass of miscegenation and prejudice. , which won the CNA Prize, the premier South African literary award, in 1977, typifies his approach to the deadweight of colonialism and its baggage of reciprocal oppression.

His narrator, Magda, is trapped on an isolated sheep farm with only her harsh, unloving father for companionship. Their black odd-job man takes a wife, and it is not long before "Baas" has coerced her into his bed. This desperate lurch across the racial divide marks the end of a tenuous feudal peace, and sends Magda freefalling into delirium, insatiable lust and violent fantasies. Her word is all we have to go by; fantasies mingle with memory as the secrets that burden her gradually emerge. The intensity of Magda's desire for recognition from a people and landscape that pay her no heed is overwhelming. Yet throughout, Coetzee maintains a precision in his descriptions of place and states of mind that cuts through her feverish narration. Two years ago, he published a memoir of his childhood (Boyhood, Secker & Warburg) in which he described his mother's great unhappiness, her cloying affection for her only son, and the resentment he felt towards her. Her loneliness and frustration are also felt by Magda, whose craving for love destroys her. Coetzee brilliantly reproduces the claustrophobia and soul-destroying routine of farm life in Magda's obsessive detailing of textures, tastes and household tasks. As a spinster, she is marginalised, and her bloody act of revenge is emblematic of a revolt against the society that has no use for her. But Coetzee goes further than that. The fall- out from Magda's crazed action is the elimination of any kind of hierarchy on the farm. The line is blurred between mistress and servant, black and white, man and woman, and the ensuing struggle for power is mesmeric in its terrifying intensity. In just his second novel, Coetzee created a fable about what Andre Brink called "man's earthly anguish and longing for salvation".