Semantron 23 Summer 2023

Identity and the colonized self

able to ‘ find evidence of her own existence [only] in her writing ’, 3 the external narrative of Michael K still proffers no real insight into his consciousness. When asked about his background, he stalls, unable to rationalize his past with a coherent perspective on its relevance to others; ‘ Michael K is not physically unable to utter sounds, but rather he has systematically been schooled into silence. ’ 4 The temporal structure within In the Heart of the Country , a ‘numbered’ diary system, as opposed to d ays, is not representative of real time; it is an arbitrary chronology which is oriented not for the reader, but for Magda. Therefore, her fractious narration ‘ seems to exist more and more intermittently ’ ( HC p.80), fuelled by the advancing ‘ barbarous frontier ’ ( HC p.138) that is the precipice between fact and fiction. As a result, Magda’s psychosis develops simultaneously to a feeling of alienation from her body’s parasitic nature. She suffers dysmorphia of extreme proportion, fixated yet repulsed by the sex of her ageing body; she derives these images of her ‘ jagged virgin[ity] ’ ( HC p.8) from imagining her father, and their servant Henrik, forcing themselves upon their wives. She muses upon the misguided idea of sex as a necessity to the constitution of a woman’s identity – ‘ there is a hole between my legs that has never been filled, leading to another hole never filled either ’ ( HC p.41) – even after her multiple rapes at the hands of Henrik. Their subsequent encounters ensconce Magda in an ‘ atomic aimlessness ’ ( HC p.112) as she waits for Henrik to appear at her door: Coetzee demarcates her perennial position of sexual submission through the deterioration of her body. Fundamentally, the parasitic attachment, and Henrik’s conquering, of the flesh acutely affects her ability to chronicle reality; the illusion of her quasi - linear narrative is utterly deconstructed. Not too dissimilar from the case of Magda, Michael K’s body is not only the ‘colon ize d self’ in literal terms, but is also subsumed by a gradual process of cognitive colonization through Coetzee’s framing of time. Post-colonial literature concerns itself with the rationalization of humans as building blocks, expendable entities used to further a timeless political or ideological vision. The ‘ medical ’ institutions, labour camps and military regimes in Michael K’s fictitious reality are used to achieve the brutal submission of a culture and community’s consciousness to an oppressing power, mostly by trivial izing chronology. Michael K’s life stands as a synecdoche for the imposition of colonialism, a process so complete in its assurance of violent social and economic enterprise that time is weaponize d. Magda’s tortuous existence remains a singular one, devoid of greater ‘purpose’. But the effect to which the inexorable creeping of time is used by Coetzee is haunting. The subjection of his protagonists to its biological and psychological effects – ‘ now I kill time and time kills me ’ ( HC p.80) – acts as a coercive means of making them speak, or narrate, their story out of fear for a timeless anonymity. But the superimposed setting of aparthei d South Africa smothers the concept of the ‘story’ for Michael K; ‘ when he tried to explain himself to himself, there remained a gap, a hole, a darkness ’ ( MK p.110). Coetzee makes no apology for the bleakness and misery with which he portrays Michael K and Magda’s prisons , His plain, unpretentious literary style conveys the equally stark featurelessness in the lives of his characters. Coetzee subtly juxtaposes Michael K and Magda’s claustrophobic mental landscape with that of the vastness of their surroundings; farms and swathes of countryside, the locus of agricultural enterprise and the lifeblood of colonialism. Magda’s murder of her father and his newly -wedded wife, whose job it was to maintain and manage their farmland, occurs during an act of intimacy in their bedroom. The

3 Briganti (n. 1). 4 Briganti (n.1).


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