- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 24, 2005


By J. M. Coetzee

Viking, $24.95, 263 pages


The United States may have won the popular culture wars, but for many serious writers Europe still defines high culture. J. M. Coetzee, the Nobel Prize winner, is one such writer, who in the European tradition gives ideas equal billing with the narrative. And as long as his back story was South Africa’s apartheid system, he maintained an admirable balance between his intellectual preoccupations and the story he was telling. But since apartheid ended and Mr. Coetzee himself immigrated to Australia, his balance seems increasingly tipped more towards ideas than character and plot.

His latest novel, like its immediate predecessor, “Elizabeth Costello,” is preeminently a novel of ideas. Like its predecessor, its protagonists are Australian and the setting Australia, and, perhaps because it is not his native land, the story he tells, lacks his customary evocative descriptions of a specific and long familiar place. In a novel that is more an intellectual exercise than a moving tale of wisdom gained too late, this lack makes for a disappointing emotional flatness.

The mood is elegiac, the tone regretful, as he details the consequences of one of those unexpected accidents that happen not out on busy highways but close to home. After 69-year-old Paul Rayment, the “slow man” of the title, is hit by a car while out riding his bicycle, his right leg must be amputated. Lying in hospital he begins reviewing his past, a process that continues once he returns to his apartment where he must depend on nurses for care. The accident is, as Mr. Coetzee soon makes clear, not so much about coping with the physical loss of a leg, though he supplies sufficient clinical details of the consequences, but is rather one of those life-changing events that challenge all past assumptions.

Rayment was once married, but now, divorced and childless, lives alone. He has amassed a valuable collection of old Australian photographs, which he has willed to the State, but lying in his hospital bed he decides that his life, prior to the accident was frivolous and that he has done neither good nor evil. “Sliding through the world: that is how, in a bygone age, they used to designate lives like his: looking after his interests — attracting no attention.” His life, he concludes has been a “wasted chance.”

It is a conclusion which is the fictional form of a drum roll as Rayment soon learns that there may be ways of redeeming this waste. Change is in the air and the agents of this change are shortly in charge of his life and his heart. The first is his daily caregiver, Marijana, an immigrant from Croatia, who is married and the mother of three children. Initially, he is merely curious about her life, but as the weeks pass he begins to fall in love with her.

He meets her 16-year-old son Drago, and though he knows the situation is absurd, his days feel brighter as he realizes he wants a place in her heart: He is willing to take care of her, her children, even her husband. As a first step, he offers to pay for Drago to attend an expensive boarding school, on which Drago has set his heart.

Obsessions, even the most innocent, are dangerous, and the old are no less susceptible to impulse and folly but Rayment has an unlikely protector, who arrives at his front door and moves in. Septuagenarian novelist, Esther Costello, the subject of Mr. Coetzee’s previous novel, is in frail health but following an intuition, she has come to Rayment. “You occurred to me,” she tells him. “A man with a bad leg and no future and an unsuitable passion. That was where it started. Where we go from there I have no idea.”

Reluctantly, Rayment endures her presence and interference in his life as she presses him to revisit his lonely childhood as well as confront the realities of Marijana’s life. Costello, it seems, is to be his moral therapist, and the therapy she inflicts upon him is no less painful than the other kind. She sends him a blind woman willing to make love if paid. She insists they visit Marijana in her home, after he finds that Drago may have stolen a valuable photograph. There, meeting her husband and seeing the family together, Rayment, with Costello at his side offering tart observations, finally understands the realities of his infatuation.

But Costello is still dissatisfied with him. Accusing him of having neither loving hands nor a loving heart, only a “heart in hiding,” she makes a proposal that could change his life. Unfortunately Rayment seems more a victim of harassment than a wasted life. Making the case for the examined life, Costello is often more a critical nag — as well as a creaky plot device — than a helpful friend. And both protagonists are trapped by their creator’s implicit charge to debate such perennial heavies as love, obligation and goodness.

Mr. Coetzee is a gifted and thoughtful writer of provocative novels, but this novel seems a tired, unenthused attempt to once more gird up the intellectual loins and look for meaning. The search is elegantly executed, at times provocative but ultimately disappointing and unpersuasive.

Judith Chettle is a South African-born writer and editor now living in Washington.

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