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Wamuwi Mbao Investigates Why The Question of JM Coetzee’s Meaning Persists

When it comes to asking “what does JM Coetzee mean?” it seems South Africa’s literary corpus cannot get enough. In an essay for SLiPNet, Wamuwi Mbao discusses why there are two schools of thought about Coetzee, and why both are not reconciled to the fact that Coetzee’s “quietude” on matters of national importance is not exactly quiet. In effect, what both camps might be expecting is some sort of bombast, and by doing so they have been and might continue to be, disappointed. Mbao questions the need for a society to expect more and demand more of its writers than those writers might be willing to give.

JM CoetzeeHere and NowThe Childhood of JesusDiary of a Bad YearElizabeth CostelloSlow Man

According to Mbao, reaction to Coetzee’s recent convocation address at Wits University is an example of a literary corpus that insists on extracting meaning from a writer who has already ably given them meaning. Mbao asks how much more satisfying can engaging with South African masculinity be?

What does J.M. Coetzee mean? As the great literary questions of our age go, it seems to be one of the more persistent ones. To say that every utterance ventured by the reticent South African author causes a flurry of interpretation in literary circles is to risk understatement. It has been a relatively busy year of both exultations and exasperations for the industry that paddles along in the wake of Coetzee, attempting to divine his motives and directions: news bubbled forth that two Coetzee texts would emerge soon (a collected set of belles lettres co-authored with Paul Auster, and a new novel, The Childhood of Jesus), but from shores afar came the disturbing news that the University of Texas had acquired the author’s professional archive, depriving the country of a vital part of its literary heritage.

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