Presentation Speech by Per Wästberg of the Swedish Academy, December 10, 2003.
Translation of the Swedish text.
Copyright © Nobel Media AB 2003
Photo: Hans Mehlin
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Esteemed Nobel Laureates, Ladies and Gentlemen,
To write is to awaken counter-voices within oneself, and to dare enter into dialogue with them. The dangerous attraction of the inner self is John Coetzee’s theme: the senses and bodies of people, the interiority of Africa. “To imagine the unimaginable” is the writer’s duty. As a post-modern allegorist, Coetzee knows that novels that do not seek to mimic reality best convince us that reality exists.
Coetzee sees through the obscene poses and false pomp of history, lending voice to the silenced and the despised. Restrained but stubborn, he defends the ethical value of poetry, literature and imagination. Without them, we blinker ourselves and become bureaucrats of the soul.
John Coetzee’s characters seek refuge beyond the zones of power. Life and Times of Michael K. gives form to the dream of an individual outside the fabric of human coexistence. Michael K. is a virgin being, viewing the world from an infinite remove. Although exposed to the violence of racist tyranny, he achieves through passivity a freedom that confounds both the apartheid regime and the guerrilla forces simply because he wants nothing: neither war nor revolution, neither power nor money.
Waiting for the Barbarians is a disturbing love story about wanting to possess another person and to turn that person inside out as though she were a riddle to be solved. Everyone who has recognised the threat of totalitarianism and felt the desire to own another person can learn from Coetzee’s dark fables. With intense concreteness and verbally disciplined desperation, he tackles one of the great problems of the ages: understanding the driving forces of brutality, torture and injustice.
Who does the writing, who seizes power by taking pen in hand? Can black experience be depicted by a white person? In Foe, Friday is an African, already dehumanised by Defoe. To give speech to Friday would be to colonise him and deny him what remains of his integrity. The girl in Waiting for the Barbarians speaks an unintelligible language and has been blinded by torture; Michael K has a harelip and Friday has had his tongue cut out. His life is recounted by Susan Barton: that is, through ‘white writing’, the title of one of Coetzee’s books.
However hard we attempt to grasp Michael and Friday, they have been made, by Coetzee, unsullied by interpretation. They remain silent. But between the lines, in what is unspoken, there is a distillation of feelings uncommon in contemporary literature.
The myth of the survivor on a desert island is the only story there is, Coetzee once said. Several of his books treat similar solitudes. Is it possible to stand outside history? Does freedom from the diktat of authority exist? “I don’t like accomplices. God, let me be alone,” says Jacobus Coetzee in the first novel, Dusklands, rejoicing in being abandoned. But he remains the tool of history, and what compels the natives to take him seriously is his victorious violence. He does, however, ask himself whether the blacks populate a wonderful world closed to his own senses: “Perhaps I have killed something of inestimable value.”
Coetzee’s work runs like a high-tension cable across an inhospitable South African landscape. Mrs. Curran in Age of Iron has witnessed monstrous actions but is unable to condemn them using the words of others. Neither will Coetzee himself sign petitions or join in political rallies.
In the dystopian novel Disgrace, David Lurie does not achieve creativity and freedom until, stripped of all dignity, he is afflicted by his own shame and history’s disgrace. In this work, Coetzee summarises his themes: race and gender, ownership and violence, and the moral and political complicity of everyone in that borderland where the languages of liberation and reconciliation carry no meaning.
Every new book by Coetzee is astonishingly unlike his others. He intrudes into the uninhabited spaces of his readers. In his autobiographies, he pitilessly ransacks his former selves. In his essay-novel Elizabeth Costello he combines, with uninhibited humour and irony, contemporary narrative and myth, philosophy and gossip.
Dear John Coetzee,
Your work is limited in pages, limitless in scope. What I have said in Swedish to those present here is merely in so many words: “Don’t listen to me, just go home and read, and some images will stay with you forever.”
In your own life, you have recently moved along the very latitude that unites Cape Town and Adelaide. You may have left South Africa; it will hardly leave you. For the Swedish Academy, national roots are irrelevant and we do not recognize what in Europe is often called the literary periphery.
You are a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on your own, starting with the basic words for our deepest concerns. Unsettling and surprising us, you have dug deeply into the ground of the human condition with its cruelty and loneliness. You have given a voice to those outside the hierarchies of the mighty. With intellectual honesty and density of feeling, in a prose of icy precision, you have unveiled the masks of our civilization and uncovered the topography of evil.
I would like to express the warmest congratulations of the Swedish Academy as I now request you to receive this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature from the hands of His Majesty the King.
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