Essay: Lu Jiandeon J.M. Coetzee

Awakening to Darkness

Most of JM Coetzee’s work has been published in Chinese since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. Interest spiked with his visit to Beijing for the second China Australia Literary Forum (CALF II) in 2013, where he met Chinese author Mo Yan, the Nobel literature laureate for 2012. The visit coincided with the international publication of Coetzee’s new novel, The Childhood of Jesus, the Chinese version of which appeared at the same time.  Coetzee’s work has attracted considerable interest in China, although his sales are not on the scale of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Haruki Murakami, who are among the most popular foreign authors in China, with reported royalties of 6 million yuan and 3 million yuan respectively in 2012. Coetzee’s work presents a particular challenge to Chinese critics, whose role is partly to introduce difficult texts to a general public. Lu Jiande, Director of the Institute of Foreign Literature in Beijing, has published several essays on Coetzee. He places the work in a line of translations of foreign literature that since the early 20th century have exposed what he calls ‘blind spots’ in the thinking of Chinese intellectuals. Readers invest key moral and philosophical concepts with local relevance and power as they are re-examined and newly illuminated in translation.

Lu Jiande’s essay ‘Awakening to darkness’, from The Hanging Canvas: A theory-free journey [Gaoxuan de huabu: budaililun de luxing. SDX Joint Publishing Company: Beijing, 2011] is translated by Wanling Liu and Steven Langsford and reprinted with the author’s permission.

Nicholas Jose


In her novel Burger’s Daughter (1979), South African writer Nadine Gordimer describes a potently shocking scene: white woman Rosa Burger, driving though one of Johannesburg’s black townships in the middle of a storm, comes across a family of three driving a donkey cart. The black man driving the cart is stinking drunk and thrashes the donkey with his whip. Gordimer describes:

the infliction of pain broken away from the will that creates it; broken loose, a force existing of itself, ravishment without the ravisher, torture without the torturer, rampage, pure cruelty gone beyond the control of the humans who have spent thousands of years devising it.

Rosa is shocked and enraged but doesn’t know in the heat of the moment how to react. In the end, she doesn’t get involved and drives off. A few days later she leaves South Africa.

The pain-wracked shuddering of the donkey later becomes an indelible nightmare in Rosa’s memory, and the scene deeply moved the 2003 Nobel laureate for literature, JM Coetzee. In an essay published in the New York Times in 1986, ‘Into the dark chamber: the novelist and South Africa’, Coetzee analyses the difficulty Rosa faced. Rosa could use the status conferred by her race to stop the violence, but the black man before her is poor and brutal, with no chance he will truly repent unless the state apparatus gives him a taste of his own medicine. That is the only language he understands, but fighting violence with violence, fire with fire, is just what Rosa detests. If she goes sailing on her way, she will fall into a trap of self-censure: not wanting to be ‘one of those whites who care more for animals than people’, but actually motivated by selfish reasons. Living in apartheid Africa, this kind of moral dilemma is a regular infliction, and Rosa’s departure from her homeland becomes a real necessity. Coetzee says that Rosa comes to a sudden awakening in that dark moment, realising that outside the world she lives in (the white residential districts) there is another world, with nothing more than a half-hour car trip between them. What happens in the world in front of her eyes is just a shadow of that other world, full of uncontrollable forces, without any concept of morality. Coetzee calls Rosa’s realisation ‘negative illumination’, the original meaning of ‘illumination’ described in terms of negation to form a self-contradictory and subtle idea of ‘awakening to darkness’. The eyes of Rosa’s heart are suddenly opened, and what they see is the dark. This is somewhat similar to the ‘darkness visible’ used by English poet Milton to describe hell in the first book of Paradise Lost.

The (complex) moral problem Gordimer reveals with this scene has always been Coetzee’s concern too. The black man beating the donkey to death is a victim of apartheid. He is not the ‘ravisher’ or ‘torturer’ in a sociological sense, but his low status does not imply the moral crime is any less. If the social system changed, but the donkey-beater remained the same, then he would have become a true ‘ravisher’ and ‘torturer’, and his victim could very well be a white person such as Rosa. In the article mentioned above, Coetzee makes a prophetic warning: No false optimism can be held about that so-called liberation day (the end of apartheid being a liberation for both black and white), because the ‘revolution will put an end neither to cruelty and suffering, nor perhaps even torture’. Without widespread violent revolution, the black leader Mandela became president in May 1994. Cruelty, suffering, and torture did not leave South Africa, and the drunk who once lorded it over a donkey might be the ‘ravisher’ or ‘torturer’ of the new society. Coetzee’s Disgrace (published in 1999, winner of that year’s Booker prize and available in Chinese translation by Zhang Chong and Guo Zhengfeng from Yilin Press) is a novel about rape and torture. The target of that violence is not a donkey, but a white farmer.

Fifty-two year-old white professor David Lurie is fired from his job in a Cape Town university over a sex scandal, and goes to a farm run by his daughter Lucy. Lucy’s black worker Petrus has risen to become a co-proprietor under the auspices of the new policies, but still unsatisfied, he secretly directs three thugs to rob Lucy and gang rape her. In the process Lurie is beaten and set on fire. Unexpectedly, not long after, Petrus announces his desire to marry Lucy. Even more surprisingly, Lucy submits, agreeing to become his third wife, her land and property all transferring to his name. A crude plan of ravishment and torture is smoothly carried off in grand style. Father and daughter find they will start from nothing, ‘no cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity’, ‘like dogs’. The cover of the original printing shows a pitifully thin dog looking around its gravelly surroundings, without food, without shelter, seemingly not far from death.

Disgrace is a controversial book in South Africa. The tense race relations reflected in it are not the subject of this article. The point I feel is particularly worth making is how Coetzee continues Gordimer’s theme through depictions of animals and livestock in various attitudes, gradually bringing the reader to a negative illumination like Rosa’s, an awakening to darkness.

Petrus throws a party one Saturday, so two days beforehand he goes to market to buy two young sheep and trusses them up on a bare patch of land by his stable. The sheep bleat and keep bleating, leaving the listening Lurie deeply discomforted. He thinks, with two days still to go to the party, why should the young sheep suffer unnecessarily? He tries to tell Petrus to let them graze nearby. More than an hour later, the sheep are still tied up in the same old place, and their plaintive bleating makes Lurie even more uncomfortable. He goes looking for their new owner, and not finding any trace of him, takes it on himself to loosen their ties and set them in a large grassy field by the water. A kind of joy rises in Lurie’s heart on seeing the young sheep eating and drinking, as if they have some tacit understanding, and he even thinks of trying to buy them himself. He tells Lucy he doesn’t approve of Petrus’s way of doing things, that he ‘shouldn’t bring animals for slaughter back home, and let the people who are going to eat them see them’. Some (Lucy for example) might think him spineless, but Lurie won’t back down from his position at all. He’s not taking an extreme position against all killing, like the proverbial Mr Guo who could hardly walk for fear of crushing ants. Deep down what really bothers him is the way the young sheep are not given a shred of dignity, and the indifference to the unnecessary hardship they are going through. If a society (or a culture) has lost its basic sensitivity to this, then individuals or communities in this society may have lost all respect for the value of life, animal or human.

When Saturday comes, a group of black women arrive at Petrus’ home, and build a big fire behind the stables. Not long after ‘there comes on wind the stench of boiling offal’. Clearly the deed is done. Here the narrative voice of the novel takes Lurie’s perspective to ask:

Should he mourn? Is it proper to mourn the deaths of beings who do not practice mourning among themselves? Looking into his heart, he can find only a vague sadness.

It’s just such subtle points of sensitivity that make up the moral character of a person, and it isalso what makes it impossible for Lurie to mingle with all the black people at the party when he attends that night. When the night’s roast is ready, someone passes a plate of food into Lurie’s hands, with two chunks of lamb as the mains. Lurie, acutely aware of the etiquette of the situation, inwardly resolves to eat all that’s on his plate: ‘Eat it and ask forgiveness afterwards’.

Lurie’s own work at the animal refuge forms a contrast with Petrus’s buying and butchering of the young sheep. A difference between him and Gordimer’s Rosa is that he is not worried about being accused of ‘caring more for animals than people’. The refuge mainly takes in old, sick and crippled dogs, and so is also called the dog clinic. The goal of taking the dogs in is not to keep them very long, but rather to take care of their last days: an injection, a swift death, and their remains put in a black plastic bag for transport the next day to the hospital incinerator.

Elsewhere in the novel Coetzee introduces the concept of the coup de grace, the compassionate action taken to end the suffering of the dying. When the three thugs shoot and kill two of Lucy’s dogs, a third is hit in the throat. Bleeding uncontrollably, with its ears flattened back, it vacantly watches its executioner. The writer says that the thug does not even bother to administer a coup de grace. Here, in the process of incineration, Lurie discovers that when the dogs’ bodies stiffen, it’s easy for their limbs to catch in the bars of the trolley. When this happens, the bodies pass through the incinerator without falling into the main furnace, and come riding back on the conveyor belt, scorched black all over with their teeth bared in a grimace. To prevent this insult to the dead recurring, the furnace-workers beat each plastic bag with a shovel, breaking the stiffened legs before loading them on the belt. In Lurie’s idealistic world this is something wrong, so he takes action himself to give the dead dogs a little dignity, to ‘save the honour of the dead’. How he does this Coetzee never clearly explains. The reader is left to notice how later, when putting the dogs in the plastic bags, Lurie takes the chance to ‘fold up’ the dog while the body is still warm, so their limbs won’t catch in the bars.

However Lurie’s intolerance eventually undergoes a subtle change. The dog clinic takes in a young dog with a withered back leg that gives it a severe lurching limp whenever it tries to walk. One day Lurie is playing a banjo and this dog raises its head to listen. Lurie loves music and is composing a chamber opera, Byron in Italy. He grows fond of this music-loving dog, but he is afraid he will have too much feeling for this dog whose condition is past curing and deliberately doesn’t give it a name, but his colleague Bev calls it Driepoot (Afrikaans for ‘three legs’). He is the only dog in the clinic with a name. The day of the dog’s final injection comes. Lurie and Bev dispose of 23 dogs, and Bev thinks the day’s work is over, when Lurie says ‘One more’.

He opens the cage door. ‘Come’, he says, bends, opens his arms. The dog wags its crippled rear, sniffs his face, licks his cheeks, his lips, his ears. He does nothing to stop it. ‘Come.’

Bearing him in his arms like a lamb, he re-enters the surgery. ‘I thought you would save him for another week’, says Bev Shaw. ‘Are you giving him up?’

‘Yes, I am giving him up.’

And so the novel ends.

In the original English version of the novel the animals bought and butchered by Petrus are ‘young sheep’, but in the end of the book Coetzee describes the crippled dog as like a ‘lamb’. The Bible refers to Jesus as the ‘lamb of God’. The Gospel according to St. John says ‘Behold the lamb of God, which takes away the sins of the world’ (John 1:29). Some readers may know that in Christian art John, baptiser of Christ (called John the Baptist), is followed by a lamb, and that Coetzee’s own given name is John. The last scene of the book may reflect Lurie’s despair or a shaking of his moral values. At the same time the symbol of the lamb suggests a religious revelation: Lucy and others with similar fates are all lambs atoning for the sins of the world. What is this revelation if not an ‘awakening to darkness’?

The awakening to darkness Coetzee gives to his readers is reminiscent of V.S. Naipaul’s famous line ‘Hate oppression, but fear the oppressed’. The terrible truth revealed by this phrase is reaffirmed by the seal of Disgrace.