22. Duskland by J.M. Coetzee

Title: Dusklands
Author J.M. Coetzee
Publishers: Vintage
Genre: Novella
Pages: 125
Year: First Published 1974 (this edition, 2004)
Country: South Africa/Australia

This is my first reading of a Nobel Prize Winner and I wasn't disappointed. Duskland consist of two novelettes: The Vietnam Project and The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee.

THE VIETNAM PROJECT: This novelette was written or narrated in the first person and set during the Vietnam war. A psychologist Eugene Dawn developed a novel psychological war strategy to be used to win the remaining phases of the war. Having been asked by his supervisor, Coetzee, to revise his propaganda, Eugene criticised himself so much that he was overtaken by the stress of the work and finally ceded to a mental breakdown.

It is an interesting novelette and shows that the casualties of war are not only those whose bones fill the belly of the earth but include those whose mental constitution succumbs to the stress of war. Coetzee's (the author) narrative is compelling filled with reality to such an extent that the reader would keep guessing whether what is being read is real or fictitious.

THE NARRATIVE OF JACOBUS COETZEE: This Coetzee is different from the Coetzee in the first novelette and from J.M. Coetzee the author. The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee was set in the year 1760. Coetzee (the character) narrates his travels through the territories of the Namaqua Hottentots with his cattle, horses and slaves. 

This is a story that shows or put into perspectives man's love for savagery and for oppression. As Coetzee came upon the Namaqua Hottentots he presented them with the gift of tobacco and copper as he had heard many such travellers who have travelled through the region do. Yet, the Namaquas' reaction to his gift and the fascination with which he was held was so unexpected and out of the order of 'human' life that Coetzee perceived them to none other than barbarians and savages. He therefore treated them as such, threatening to shoot to kill if anyone touches his wagon. His description of the people showed no respect and he put them on equal footing with animals.

Yet the novel clearly shows that it was Coetzee who was a savage for after the people of Namaqua had treated him of his sickness and him showing no respect to them, they cast him out to go his lonely way. Losing five of his six slaves infuriated him most and increased his resolve for vengeance. As he made his journey back home and Coetzee reflected on what has happened to him and realised that he has retrogressed from a 'well set elephant hunter to a white Bushman'; yet to him this retrogression was insignificant and insignificant also was his treatment by the Namaqua people. It was on the journey back with Klawer (the remaining slave) that the bond and respect between master and slave dissolved, for when Klawer the slave fell sick Coetzee carried him on his back for most of the journey back; but in the end he left him to his fate promising to come back for him, which he never did or was not recorded.

Coetzee travelled back to the Great River to execute his vengeance by savagely killing all his slaves who deserted him and some of other Hottentots. The way and manner in which he ordered them to be killed or were killed by him and the happiness and satisfaction he derived from these killings fit  his own definition of savagery as 
"... a way of life based on disdain for the value of human life and sensual delight in the pain of others."
It was interesting to note that the Afterword and the Appendix (which was an exposition by the Councillor) both highlighted the positive parts of Coetzee's adventures leaving out his massacre of the Namaqua people. This is a way of saying that such people do not matter.

The narration is different from most narratives I have read. I can't point out what it is I liked about it but it was really a good read but it was also short and the plot was not tight. The climax was not as sharp as it should have been. It was a terse narrative. I would recommend this to all. Though the first novelette has nothing to do with  Africa the second does.

ImageNations' Rating: 5.0 out of 6.0

Please take a second to vote for your favourite book of the quarter. Thanks.


  1. I'm not a big fan of Coetzee (search for "Disgrace" in my blog), but I can't say anything about "Duskland" as I haven't read it.
    Also, this book was written before the end of apartheid and the one I read after it. The end of apartheid changed everything in South Africa, even the way a writer like Coetzee describes white men and black men in Africa.
    Let me know what you think of "A Bend in the River", I haven't read it but they say that Naipaul is very unsympathetic towards the so-called Third World.

    By the way, I've found a crazy web site: www.readallday.org
    This blogger reads a book every day and then blogs it!!! Unbelievable! She also blogged Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart", if you're interested.

  2. Hi thanks. I would search for Disgrace. It is on my 100 books to be read in five years.

    Hmm...did he change from the best to the worst or vice versa. I actually didn't like some of the descriptions of the Hottentots but I tried understanding this in a different way which is my opinion in the blog.

    Yes I would let you know about A Bend in the River.

    Reading a book a day...? I would check it out.

  3. Nana - Thanks for this review. I have several by Coetzee on my list of 100 too and also A Bend in the River. Interesting comments from Stephania. I will check out Readallday's comments about Things Fall Apart since I read it recently too.
    I like your poll you've posted, but hate to vote based only on your reviews. You have added so many new books to my to be read list, and I am grateful for that. I look forward to seeing what wins.
    I am getting to the point where I want to dedicate my blog to primarily reading African and African American writers, but I will probably pepper that with other writers from places foreign to me. I am reading another book by Jhumpa Lahiri now and also Haitian Edwidge Danticat's book Breath, Eyes, Memory.

  4. thanks for the comments. I based the poll on novels that have been reviewed on this blog during the quarter. Hmmm...that's the only way it could be.

    There are a lot of good novels by African writers and I hope you would love them. I would check out your picks too.

  5. thanks for the review. I've never read Coetzee but it sounds intriguing.

  6. I believe you would like it. He writes well. I think his later works especially Disgrace was deemed racist and that led to his leaving South Africa to Australia.

  7. I think, this novel is a very important to nation that experienced colonial period. I am Korean, so I try to read but too difficult. Thanks for your review.

  8. I think, this novel is a very important to nation that experienced colonial period. I am Korean, so I try to read but too difficult. Thanks for your review.


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