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J M Coetzee: The Master of Petersburg

This is Coetzee’s Russian novel and very interesting it is. The main character is Dostoevsky – yes, that Dostoevsky – who has just returned to St. Petersburg from Germany on the death of his stepson, Pavel. He takes up quarters in his dead stepson’s room and soon begins to suspect that Pavel’s alleged suicide might not have been suicide. It seems that Pavel was involved in a terrorist group, called the People’s Vengeance and headed by Sergei Nechaev. Some reviews have suggested that it is modelled on the group known as the People’s Will which tried, unsuccessfully to assassinate Tsar Alexander II but, in fact, it is almost certainly modeled on Narodnaya rasprava, which translates more or less as People’s Reprisal or, indeed, People’s Vengeance. This group was headed by the nihilist Sergei Nechaev, who was the model for Pyotr Verkhovensky in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed. Coetzee is concerned with how the writer Dostoevsky has to face up to some unpleasant truths, not only the fact that this stepson was involved in terrorist activities but that his stepson did not look up to him. The plot is far more complicated than that, as Dostoevsky gets involved with the people his stepson knew and in a couple of murders that subsequently take place. Life and art, Coetzee is saying, cannot be neatly separated and placed in their own little compartments as any South African writer knows only too well.

Publishing history

First published 1994 by Secker and Warburg