Slow Man, by J M Coetzee

Codes for the enigma of survival

The sparsely constructed pages of Slow Man - no flourishes, little heft - find Coetzee several steps further down the path into his own private jungle. As with many a writer of this degree of celebrity - a Nobel Prize back in 2003, two Booker garlands - the novel's chief distinction is that it resembles other works by J M Coetzee only more so. Routine tics and preoccupations are magnified into obtrusiveness, dominated by its sense of interiority.

The setting is the Adelaide suburbs, but it might as well be Copenhagen for all the attention paid to the backdrop. Coetzee's characters are similarly detached, rootless to the point of vagrancy, their dilemmas, though real enough, existing in such isolation from any kind of wider world that the result is curiously abstract, as if his true interest lay less in people than the writing of sophisticated parables of the human condition.

At any rate, what follows turns distinctly allegorical. Paul Rayment is a hale 60-year-old divorcé thrown back on his own resources when his bicycle is bulldozed by a negligent teenager. Back in his flat, one leg amputated above the knee, with only his collection of early Australian photographs and a solitary ex-lover for company, he is enraptured by the Croatian carer assigned to him by social services.

Outwardly stolid, at first physically unenticing, Marijana Jokic and her family inspire him to a fine quixotic gesture. "He wants to take of them, protect them and save them." In pursuit of this end he offers to pay 16-year-old Drago's fees at an expensive boarding school, and buys off a shopkeeper who has accused the boy's sister of shoplifting. All this, though hemmed in by Coeztee's frets and silences, is more or less plausible.

It stops being so when a press on the buzzer announces the arrival of Elizabeth Costello. Disclaiming personal volition ("You came to me. In certain respects I am not in command of what comes to me"), the interloper starts interfering in his life, produces a blind woman to pleasure him and offers a running commentary on the predicaments in which he finds himself.

As for Ms Costello's role in the later proceedings, during which the Rayment/Jokic alliance first runs into trouble and then seems to right itself, practised Coetzee-watchers may want to mark her down as a symbol of the creative process, with its sneaky manipulations and contingencies. Certainly, the sign-off, when Paul declines the offer of a twilight coming-together and bids her farewell, looks like a blunt refusal to embrace the possibilities, and the possible complications, of which art supposedly consists. On the other hand, he may just have had enough of his uninvited guest.

Full of the deftest psychological touches and some acutely realised brooding on the old fictional firm of memory and desire, Slow Man's code - if code it is - stays resolutely, and tantalisingly, uncrackable.

D J Taylor's 'Orwell: the life' is published by Vintage

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