Passion Makes the World Go Round
Mmegi/The Reporter (Gaborone)
February 3, 2006
Posted to the web February 3, 2006
J. M Coetzee (2005) "Slow Man". Parktown, Random House, 263 pages, hardcover, P170, ISBN 0-436-20611-0.
Nobel Prize winning author J.M. Coetzee has moved to Australia and has set his 17th book, "Slow Man", in Adelaide, South Australia. Paul Rayment is ready to retire at 60 when he has an accident and a leg is amputated above the knee. How he copes with this disaster, his paths to recovery and his infatuation with his caregiver and her family are the subjects of this unusual novel.
The reader slowly learns about Paul Rayment. He is probably a character you would soon move on from if you met him at a party (but then he wouldn't be there, because he is a bit of a recluse). Paul is originally from France, but his mother remarried and they moved to Australia when he was small. There was little exceptional in his life, except he became a professional photographer.
He did return to France when he was a late adolescent, but found he did not really fit in. He was shocked to find his relatives called him "l'Anglais", though he had never even been to England.
He fell in love with a young woman from Morocco, then a most unsuitable passion in everyone else's eyes. He learned he was more Australian than French. So he returned to Australia and made it his home.
Paul was married, but had no children. His wife left him, perhaps because he was so bland. He ran a studio in Unley and taught evening classes in photography. At a young age he began collecting original photographs by early Australian photographers of the mid 19th century.
He has thus amassed a significant collection, which he will bequeath to a library on his death. The parts in this novel on the mysteries of photography are excellent.
What Coetzee has given us is a case study of one man, Paul Rayment, and his alter ego, the famous older Australian woman writer Elizabeth Costello (why Coetzee falls back on using her we may never know). Much of what Costello has to observe, call attention to and pronounce on could have been done in other ways by an author writing in the third person. For example she says:
"Paul here is unhappy because unhappiness is second nature to him but particularly because he has not the faintest idea about how to bring about his heart's desire" (p. 141).
Costello is privileged to information about Paul and the other characters that normally is reserved for angels, gods or an author. Coetzee has used her in other works and in his previous novel of that name. Instead of the stream-of-consciousness, first-person narrative that he achieved in "In the Heart of the Country" (1977) the author plays god and writes about his characters from outside and above. This allows a little more flexibility.
There are all too frequent references to what "God knows"-and not what the author knows-in this strange and extremely well written novel.
"God knows what Elizabeth Costello really wants, for him or for herself or for this Marianna; God knows to what theory of life or love she really holds; God knows what will happen next" (page 112).
Another time Elizabeth tells Paul "We don't have much time left, either of us". He comments, "Don't we", and she replies; "No. Under the gaze of heaven, in the cold eye of God, we don't" (page 203). At one point Paul aspires to become like a god by proposing that he be accepted as a godfather.
All very frustrating to the reader when an author within a novel by another author plays God. Le me quote Woody Allen: "If it turns out there is a God, I don't think that he's evil. But the worst you can say about him is that he's basically an underachiever." Paul's accident results in a circumscribed life and places him in the clutches of social services. He does what he is told, but not completely. He refuses to consider having an artificial leg installed.
Instead he learns to cope using crutches and a Zimmer Frame. He cannot tolerate the first frail care nurses sent his way. He eventually is assigned one he likes:
"Marijana Jokic is a shallow-faced woman who, if not quite middle aged, exhibits a thickening about the waist that is quite matronly. She wears a sky-blue uniform that he finds a relief after all the whiteness, with patches of dampness under the arms; she speaks a rapid, approximate Australian English with Slavic liquids and an uncertain command of 'a' and 'the' coloured by slang she must have picked up from her children ... " (page 27).
Marijana has three children. She sometimes brings the youngest, pretty Lujba, to work with her. He is not Rocket Man, but Slow Man, observes Ljuba. The oldest, Drago, is an angelic 16 year-old with strong aspirations for himself in this "sunny land of opportunity". Marijana's husband now works in an automobile assembly plant. Before migrating from Croatia in former Yugoslavia, Marijana had trained as an art restorer and she and her husband worked at the Art Institute in Dubrovnik.
Paul Rayment is not a character that will long be remembered or become part of world literature. His nemesis Elizabeth Costello, at least as treated in this novel, also does not win our affection or admiration.
Turning his sights on ageing and its complication, Coetzee has perhaps found a niche and a growing audience, as the demographic profile of people over sixty who purchase and read (not just put on their shelves) novels is growing dramatically. Also the number of older people who have accidents, from broken hips to amputations due to Diabetes and other events, is expanding exponentially. Perhaps John Michael Coetzee, who will be 66 on February 9, also identifies with Rayment?
Paul's relationship with Marijana and her son are explored in great detail. Paul at sixty finds there are feelings he has never really had before and he succumbs to them, but they only complicate everyone's lives further.
Elizabeth Costello appears, supposedly to rescue everyone from a quagmire, but her methods are most unorthodox, and include procuring another woman (the Marianna mentioned above) for Paul.
The novel turns into an exploration into the nature and meaning of love. But do the elderly need love, or only care? Is Coetzee writing tongue-in-cheek or are deeper meanings hidden here?