Slow Man by J M Coetzee

It's time to renew your contract with life
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The Independent Culture

Rayment falls in love with Marijana, despite the fact that she has a family of her own struggling to make it in Australia. Rayment also has an old lover called Margaret, who wishes to renew his interest in sexuality. Clearly Margaret is from his earlier world. He dismisses her. Instead he tries to involve Marijana in a financial deal which will tie her family to him: he offers to sponsor the son, Drago, at a private school, Wellington College in Canberra. His motives are not entirely straightforward: he lusts after the solid, capable Marijana, and wants also to acquire a family of his own. Her husband, Miroslav, who was briefly famous in Croatia for getting a 17th-century mechanical duck to work, may be an obstacle with his Balkan machismo.

From this point onwards, any conclusions I offer as to what exactly Coetzee is saying, should be treated as speculative. So much is going on in this spare book that it is difficult to keep up. For at this moment Elizabeth Costello appears. For those who don't know, Elizabeth Costello was the fictional novelist in whose name Coetzee delivered the Tanner lectures at Princeton. Later, in the novel Elizabeth Costello, she appeared as the protagonist. Now she is an elderly lady looking - perhaps - for a story. She seems to know an awful lot about Rayment, and proceeds to interfere in his life, offering him advice and urging the "Slow Man'' to hurry up and act decisively. She also proposes that he has sex with a blind woman called Marianna (note the recurring name), who will not see his mutilated leg, and indeed he does that, although he suspects she might just be a call girl pretending to be blind and brought into the story by Elizabeth Costello, who is fairly promiscuous with the truth.

I think we are to draw some conclusions about the nature of storytelling, the relation of fact to imagination, reality to illusion, and the very thin line between what we regard as material and what we think of as imaginary. Rayment clings to the conventional idea that novelists are always looking for a story and that he is, for the moment, the focus of Elizabeth Costello's attention. She is, however, something of a mystery, sleeping in the park among "hobos'' or offering courses of action which she repudiates later. The key phrase here, I think, is her claim that "he came to her''. Rayment thinks she is referring to some geographical movement but of course she is thinking of something inspirational as in the phrase "it came to me that...''.

Marijana's husband rejects the proposal to sponsor his son at private school, which provokes a family rift and the boy moves in with Rayment, at which point Rayment discovers that teenagers are not ideal companions for a childless man in his sixties. His relationship with Marijana falters, despite Elizabeth's urgings. In effect he is being asked to take control of his own narrative. She particularly reproaches him with the fact that he does not fully engage and that he is cold. He says that he is "a foreigner by nature'', and I think that we can see here Coetzee's own sense that identity is not granted unconditionally to everyone. There are, too, certain reminders of Kafka, long a staple of South African literature.

In the end, some kind of deal is made with the Croatian family and hope is offered by the fact that father and son have manufactured for Rayment - entirely unsolicited - a bicycle which he can power with his arms; maybe he will resume his former life as a cyclist, free to roam the brown and dusty land where he finds himself.

As part of his renewed contract with life, he also accepts that his precious photographs have lost their uniqueness in the age of digital photography and fakery. But the most telling moment comes when he rejects Elizabeth's offers of companionship in their old age and sends her packing. I interpreted this as suggesting that he was returning from the fictional world to a place where his story could not be concluded neatly. At this point I also remembered that Rayment was born in Lourdes.

Coetzee is a unique voice; no novelist explores ideas and the power of literature and the sense of displacement so boldly. Slow Man will add to his immense reputation.