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J M Coetzee: Dusklands

Coetzee’s first work of fiction is a study in power and culture. It is, in fact, two novellas, whose theme is linked. The first is about a researcher working on American propaganda in the Vietnam War. The research shows both the power relationships of the Americans vis-à-vis the Vietnamese and their failure to understand the Vietnamese (whom, of course, they regarded as inferior). But we also see the effect on the researcher, Eugene Dawn, as this study clearly has an insidious effect on him. Eventually, at the end he kidnaps his son from his estranged wife and ends up in a mental asylum, clearly unable to reconcile his study of the war with his life.

The second novel concerns an apparent ancestor of Coetzee (Dawn, incidentally, reported to a supervisor called Coetzee). This Coetzee travelled into the land of the Namaquas, with some Hottentot servants. When they arrive at a remote village, he falls sick. He is looked after but robbed of all of his possessions and has to leave, with only two servants to help him through the desert. He returns with some armed men, kills the servants who abandoned him (who are still there) and burns the village.

In both stories, the white man clearly not only does not understand the alien culture he is dealing with and is unable to accept that there is a different way at looking at the world from his but he feels it is clearly inferior and therefore one he can control, often with violence. But, as Coetzee shows, there is often a price to pay, even if the white man does not recognise this price.

Publishing history

First published 1974 by Ravan Press