Dusklands by J.M. Coetzee (1974) 125 p.

Coetzee’s first novel Dusklands is a fairly short piece of work divided into two halves: an American military psychologist’s report on propaganda techniques being used in the then-ongoing Vietnam War, and a manuscript detailing a journey undertaken by fictional South African pioneer “Jacobus Coetzee” which descends into violence and blood-letting.

Like Coetzee’s future works, Dusklands is grim and depressing; an examination of dominion, colonialism and exploitation. Jacobus’ story is the more overtly oppressive of the two, and I actually think the book would have worked better if the narrative halves were switched; beginning with the violence of 18th century colonial South Africa, followed by the more subtle brutality of psychological warfare by foreign occupiers in Vietnam.

Coetzee’s writing, as always, is beautifully clear. His powerful, distinctive voice is evident even in this early novel. Dusklands contains some wonderful scenes – I particularly liked a description of Jacobus’ hunting party as described by the trail of litter, bullets and bodily fluids they left in their wake – and also some horrible, disturbing scenes. (Oddly enough, for all the violence in the book, nothing made me squirm more than a description of Jacobus attempting to pierce a pus-filled sore on his buttocks.) Dusklands is a strong first novel, and stands up well against the masterpieces that would follow it.

Advertisements