On Coetzee’s Emigration

Rachel Donadio in the NYT:Donadio190

This month, Viking will publish “Diary of a Bad Year,” the latest novel by J. M. Coetzee. With his spare prose and unsparing sense of the human condition, Coetzee is one of the most important novelists at work today. His biographical note mentions his 2003 Nobel Prize and 18 previously published books. It also presents, understatedly, a significant fact: “A native of South Africa, Coetzee now lives in Adelaide, Australia.

A host of questions lurk behind that simple sentence. Why would a novelist who has written so powerfully about the land of his birth pack up and leave? Were his 2002 move and his taking of Australian citizenship last year a betrayal of his homeland, or a rejoinder to a country whose new government had denounced one of his most important novels as racist? Was it just another example of the “white flight” that has sent hundreds of thousands of generally affluent South Africans to other Anglophone countries since the end of apartheid? Or was it a tacit acknowledgment that Coetzee had exhausted his South African material, that the next chapter in the country’s history was the rise of the black middle class, and what did an old resistance writer, with his aloof, middle-aged white narrators, know about that?