Saturday, October 06, 2007


Nobel Prize winning author J M Coetzee has moved couple of tens of places up in my all time favourite authors list. And not that his name was lying the at bottom of the list by any means!

His 166-pages caricature of a kid (presumably his own story, but the back-cover mentions the genre as "fiction") underlines his ability to be a versatile author. The last (and the first) book I read by this South African author was Slow Man. In that, he portrays an old man who met with an accident and who has be incapacitated below the waist. The style then was, as the name suggested, slow and patient.

And obviously, in this memoir from childhood, the style is fluent, at times childish (oh! I felt the same way when I was a kid), probing, full of observations -- seemingly trivial but very important, and most importantly, free. It doesn't take many pages to find digressions (as a child's free mind would take). The memories from his beloved farm are especially telling of the minute details a child's mind is trying to grasp.

Every Friday a sheep is slaughtered for the people of the farm. He goes along with Ros and Uncle Son to pick out the one that is to die; then he stands by and watches as, in the slaughtering-place behind the shed, out of sight of the house, Freek holds down the legs while Ros, with his harmless-looking little pocket-knife, cuts its throat, and then both men hold tight as the animal kicks and struggles and coughs while its lifeblood gushes out. He continues to watch as Ros flays the still warm body and hangs the carcase from the seringa tree and splits it open and tugs the insides out into a basin: the great blue stomach full of grass, the intestines (from the bowel he squeezes out the last few droppings that the sheep did not have time to drop), the heart, the kidneys--- all the things that a sheep has inside it and that he has inside him too.
(Italics above mine)

As it's a memoir from childhood, there is not much of strong story to it. Perhaps, that's the book's biggest strength. Right from his school, where he is rank one student, but is afraid that they may split the class into English and Afrikaners, and he'd have to join the Afrikaners, to his faith (atheist by birth!), right from his love for his mother (he hates the word love though!) to dislike of his father, that turns into hatred towards the end, Coetzee takes us for a emotionally absorbing journey.

As it so happens, at many times, I found it so much parallel to my childhood. Not in terms of the experiences, but just the thinking process, I guess I had then. Or may be not. Or may be, that the success for the author.

He made me look back ever so often.

At the end, his father takes to too much drinking, is a broke and everything seems dark. speaking about his mother who stands tall amid all this, he writes,

This woman was not brought into the world for the sole purpose of loving him and protecting him and taking care of his wants. On the contrary, she had a life before he came into being, a life in which there was no requirement upon her to give him the slightest thought. At a certain time in her life she bore him; she bore him and she decided to love him; perhaps she chose to love him even before she bore him; nevertheless, she chose to love him, and therefore she can choose to stop loving him.

'Wait until you have children of your own,' she says to him in one of the bitter moods. 'Then you will know.' What will he know? It is a formula she uses, a formula that sounds as if it comes from the old days. Perhaps it is what each generation days to the next, as a warning, as a threat. But he does not want to hear it. 'Wait until you have children.' What nonsense, what a contradiction! How can a child have children? Anyway, what he would know if were a father, if he were his own father, is precisely what he does not want to know. He will not accept the vision that she wants to force upon him:sober, disappointed, disillusioned.
Only the other day, sitting in a restaurant, awaiting my bill, I was toying with a square tissue paper. Trying to make a paper-boat of it. It was not too long before it struck me that I have grown too old to be able to make one. My hands just couldn't fold that sheet of paper. In no time, my mind took me back to the past. That simple, carefree, issue-less world. Holding that piece of paper as my ticket, I made a trip that day, only to return back to present when the bill actually arrived.

After reading this book, I am even more saddened, that the time of my childhood is a bygone. And bygones are bygones. Unlike the skill of making paper-boats, which I am sure I'll re-learn in good time!


Some reviews for further reading:


Nandan said...

Wonderfully written review, Ajit. As you have pointed out, success of the narrative owes not a small part to that ability of making you look back and identify with it in books like this one. Have you read Lampan books by Prakash Narayan Sant? They are in similar vein.

Ajit said...

Nandan, echo your thoughts about Lampan. Ditto with that series of books too. A major difference between Lampan series and Boyhood, however, is the social setting of SA (apartheid-Afrikaners-v/s-English, natives-coloured etc.etc. era!)...and the questions it created for a child (not that the book lingers too much around it!).

Anand Sarolkar said...

>>Holding that piece of paper as my ticket, I made a trip that day, only to return back to present when the bill actually arrived.<<

Awesome lines!!!

And trips like these encourage you to live on and create more and more of such memories.

And a lovely review of the book.