- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 2, 2003

STOCKHOLM — South African novelist J.M. Coetzee, whose stories tell of innocents and outcasts oppressed by the cruel weight of history, won the 2003 Nobel Prize in literature yesterday.

The 63-year-old writer, long a favorite for the book world’s most prestigious prize, was cited as a “scrupulous doubter, ruthless in his criticism of the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of Western civilization.”

The Swedish Academy said Mr. Coetzee’s novels, which include “Disgrace,” “Waiting for the Barbarians” and “Age of Iron,” are also characterized by their “well-crafted composition, pregnant dialogue and analytical brilliance.”

Mr. Coetzee, who teaches at the University of Adelaide in Australia and is spending a semester as a visiting professor at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, said the award “came as a complete surprise.”

“I was not even aware that the announcement was pending,” he said.

The prize includes a check for more than 10 million kronor, or $1.3 million.

“He’s a colleague and a friend, and it’s also a wonderful thing that the Nobel Prize has come to South Africa again,” said fellow South African writer Nadine Gordimer, who won the Nobel in 1991, not long before the fall of apartheid, the brutal system of racial segregation. Both are white writers from their predominantly black country.

Mr. Coetzee is one of the world’s most respected writers, having authored eight novels and numerous essays and manifestos covering everything from rugby to censorship.

Mr. Coetzee is a two-time winner of the Booker Prize, in 1983 for “Life & Times of Michael K,” and in 1999 for “Disgrace,” a best seller that has sold about 200,000 copies in the United States.

“Elizabeth Costello,” his latest book, which comes out Oct. 16, is the story of a famous Australian author who finds herself increasingly weary of public life and drawn instead toward philosophical contemplation.

Mr. Coetzee is a solitary figure, a quiet man who rarely communicates with the media and prefers doing so by e-mail. He declined even to show up to collect his Booker prizes and would not speak to any reporters yesterday. It is reported that the Nobel committee itself found it hard to reach him yesterday.

His books usually are brief — under 300 pages — and concentrated, focusing on the personal consequences of apartheid, which brutalized South Africa’s black majority.

The son of a sheep farmer, John Maxwell Coetzee was born in Cape Town in 1940, but left South Africa for a decade after the Sharpeville shootings of 1960, when police fired on demonstrators, killing 70 persons. He worked briefly in England as a programmer for IBM, and in 1969 received a doctorate degree from the University of Texas for computer-generated language.

The Nobel Prize in literature last year went to Hungarian writer Imre Kertesz, whose fiction drew on his experience as a teenager in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

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