Semantron 23 Summer 2023

Identity and the ‘coloni z ed self’: J.M. Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country and Life and Times of Michael K

Fred Edenborough

I have always been drawn to the history of colonialism, the way that it is portrayed through literature, and the impact it has on one’s individual identity. My idea of the ‘coloni z ed self’, and its intersection with the exploitation of the mind, body and ownership in literature is reflected in J.M. Coetzee’s w ork. The thematic focus of these two Coetzee texts fundamentally revolves around the narratives of two broken, and in differing ways, ‘institutional ize d’ protagonists. In the Heart of the Country (HC)is a novel that follows Magda, a ‘ bored spinster with a locked diary ’ 1 on a remote farm in South Africa. Many of Coetzee’s critics consider her mad, and as a n unreliable narrator. But the significance of Magda’s interior monologue is in fact realized by the same diaristic cage to which she confines herself. The apparent lack of narrative structure in her diary entries compound the repetitive and distorted events of the novel – the ‘ blurring between factual and imaginary reality ’ 2 – and trap Magda in the fictional world of her written word, a world where she believes to have ‘ uttered my life in my own voice ’ ( HC p.139). There is an ironic dualism in the nature of Magda’s agency : she is free, but only to express her deep cynicism at the medium of words as fruitless in conveying her ‘ dull black blind ’ ( HC p.5) existence on the farm. Indeed, the internal, bitterly loquacious discourse on the uses of literature – a reflection of her blackened psyche on the page – ironizes the universality of words as a refuge for the conscience. Coetzee employs the meta by having Magda acknowledge the impassibility of her anhedonia, the cause of which is her very own writing. However, the second of Coetzee’s post -colonial novels I discuss, The Life and Times of Michael K (MK) , focuses on the fundamentals of a concept I call the ‘col onize d self’; the creation of a self -identity relating to experiences under a colonial superstructure. This novel follows the life and times of a man called Michael K, forced to flee with his dying mother from a city overrun with violence and chaos. They aim to make it to Prince Albert, her birthplace, but she dies during the course of their journey, Michael is picked up by the authorities for vagrancy, and the rest of the novel follows his withdrawal into a hermit- like existence as he is ground to nothing by the system. In the case of Michael K, his experiences are moulded by a tertiary paradigm of colonialism that Coetzee employs to highlight his subjection to the oppressor, an ‘informal’ hegemony that runs parallel to his physical entrapment within state- centralized institutions. The unsanctioned brutality and violence, the abuse of socio-economic disparities, the baseless discrimination that Michael K witnesses affect him more than his own institutionalization. He is able to escape the labour camps; they are a material means of imprisonment. But what is not material he cannot rid himself of. He experiences the ruthless persecution of his fellow inmates as if it were as much of a physical ailment as his harelip. But fascinatingly, where Magda is only

1 Briganti, C. (1994) ‘ A Bored Spinster with a Locked Diary: The Politics of Hysteria ’, Research in African Literatures 25.4: 33-49. 2 Ibid.


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