From Alan Paton to Nadine Gordimer and Athol Fugard, the agonizing human conflict in South Africa has provided the stimulus for an impressive amount of creative writing. Now a new name must be added to the list: J.M. Coetzee, an Afrikaner who writes in English and this week received Britain's premier literary award, the Booker McConnell Prize for Fiction, for his fourth novel, "Life and Times of Michael K."
Coetzee first captured attention in the United States two years ago with the widely acclaimed book "Waiting for the Barbarians," which showed him to be a writer of exceptional weight and depth. That novel was the story of a great empire's descent into bestial behavior as it sought to protect its civilization from the threatening hordes waiting beyond its borders.
Although the analogy with Coetzee's own country is obvious, his treatment of the theme showed him to possess an ability, not shared by many of his compatriots, to transcend the South African experience and explore more universal issues.
The new book does this, too, in a rather more refined way. It is more explicitly South African in its setting. It is also simpler in its story line, starkly so, its action and characters stripped, Beckett-like, down to the barest essentials. But its larger themes are even more universal.
Michael K, an unprepossessing "colored" gardener, sets out with a bicycle and cart to take his ailing mother away from Cape Town, where the South African revolution is breaking out, only to find the conflict following him into the remote regions of the dry tableland known as the karroo.
Freed of his last human association with the death of his mother, Michael K manages to lead his own stark life in the eye of the storm, later surviving captivity, too, even though the simplicity of his diet has rendered him incapable of eating prison food.
It is a book about freedom and resistance. Coetzee says he got the idea from a newspaper story about a giant panda that was accustomed to eating only young bamboo shoots and refused all else in captivity, preferring to die.
This is the ultimate resistance. What if someone's need for freedom becomes, so to speak, biological? No technique of persuasion, no torture can work on him. He must triumph, as Michael K ultimately triumphs over, or at least survives, the Kafkaesque social machine in his crumbling society.
John M. Coetzee was born in Cape Town on Feb. 9, 1940, of rural Afrikaner stock. His father, who grew up on a sheep farm in the karroo, was anglicized and the Coetzees spoke English at home but Afrikaans to their relatives. Coetzee went to English-language schools, but most of his teachers, even his English teachers, were Afrikaners.
He spent a peripatetic childhood in more than a dozen small towns in and around the karroo, including Prince Albert, where Michael K ekes out his isolated existence living in a burrow on an abandoned farm.
Coetzee is a slightly built man with a prematurely graying beard, soft eyes, an even softer voice and an extraordinarily reticent manner.
He wraps himself in privacy and is as little known in his own country as he is abroad. He is a professor of literature at Cape Town University. Coetzee, who is divorced, lives with his two children, Nicholas, 17, and Gisela, 14, in a small suburban house on a narrow road not marked on street maps and with a wrong address listed in the telephone directory.
Conversation with him is difficult, eliciting one-line replies as sparse as his prose. The slightest probe into his personal life and he closes up like a sea anemone. He will not even reveal what the M. stands for in his name. To an inquiry about why his family moved about so much when he was small comes the reply: "I can't remember."
Lionel Abrahams, one of South Africa's leading literary critics, recalls the effect this had on him when he and Coetzee first met. Abrahams, a warm person, was listening to Coetzee deliver a paper at a literary conference and was appalled at what seemed to be the author's aloof manner and intolerant responses to questions.
"He was pure ice and it quite put me off his work," Abrahams recalls.
But it was a false impression, the critic now says. As he has got to know Coetzee and his work better, he has sensed a thaw. "Now I find him amiable," Abrahams says. "Even warm, though not in the sense of being outgoing. He is never that."
Ian Glenn, one of Coetzee's few close friends and a fellow lecturer in the English department at the university, paints a similar picture of Coetzee--an introverted intellectual, intensely private, but one who can relax and be a fascinating conversationalist among people he knows well.
"I think John is in something of a quandary at the moment," says Glenn. "The success of his books is bringing him into the spotlight, but he feels strongly that an author has the right to have his privacy respected. He wrote a sharp review the other day of someone's life of Beckett, making the point that Beckett had said he didn't want anyone to write about his life.
"I don't think he wants to go to the lengths of writers like Pynchon and Salinger, who are totally private and mysterious," Glenn adds. "At the same time I think he's uneasy about the role of being a public figure who pronounces on public issues and signs manifestos and things like that."
There is a contradictory streak, however. Coetzee confesses to enjoying sports. He has written an essay on the sociology of rugby, and he is a cricket nut. He loves watching the game and playing it, though he meets questions even about this with a dead bat.
There are other paradoxes. Though his personality is private, intellectually he is cosmopolitan. He began his working life as a mathematician, joined a computer company in Britain, working at the mathematical laboratory at Cambridge University while on loan from the firm.
But he hated it, so he switched to linguistics and earned a PhD at the University of Texas, later teaching for three years at the State University of New York in Buffalo. His American experience during the years of the Vietnam war was especially broadening, as reflected in his first novel.
In addition to English, he speaks fluent Dutch, German, French and, of course, Afrikaans. He translates from these languages and does considerable academic work on their literatures.
"He's a rare phenomenon, a writer-scholar," Glenn says. "Even if he hadn't had a career as a novelist he would have had a very considerable one as an academic. There's this old thing that if you're a critic you can't be a creator, but John has managed to combine the two.
"In fact he's combined three or four--linguistics, translation, literary criticism and creative writing. He's a damn good teacher too. It's a remarkable spectrum, and that's what makes him interesting to me."
Coetzee did not begin writing until he returned to South Africa from the United States in 1971. His first book, "Dusklands," which is partly about the Vietnam war, was published when he was 34.
Talking to Coetzee about this work is somewhat easier than about himself. Writing, he says, does not come spontaneously to him. It is a grind, thinking of what the next word or phrase will be, then going back and crossing out what is not right. There is nothing enjoyable about it.
"I don't like writing so I have to push myself," he says. "It's bad if I write but worse if I don't." So he keeps at it, forcing himself to write every day, Sundays and vacations, never skipping a day lest "the temptation to skip another becomes too great."
He is a morning person. "My day is a long decline from early morning till late night, so I can really only be productive in the first hours."
If he has a lecture at 8:30 in the morning he will get up around 5:30 to put in a couple of hours of writing before driving to the university. If he has no lecture until the afternoon he will sleep till a more conventional hour. But he will always be at his writing desk for his best hour, which is half an hour after getting up.
Why does he write? The question, he says, cannot be approached in the abstract. It must be, "Why did you write what you wrote?" Or, "Why are you writing what you are writing?"
"Writing is not carried out in a vacuum," Coetzee says. "The book is what you are about to become, or have become, or used to be.
"On the basis of that framework, I would say that the writer is simply another reader when it is a matter of discussing the books he has already written. They don't belong to him any more and he has nothing privileged to say about them--while the book he is engaged in writing is far too private and important a matter to be talked about."
Coetzee sounded pleased when telephoned late Wednesday night to be told that he had won the Booker Prize. It was, he said, "a pleasant surprise." He was the only one of the six finalists for the prize who was not at the awards ceremony in London's Stationers Hall.