Awarded the Nobel Prize in 2003, South African novelist J. M. Coetzee has long been a fierce if idiosyncratic moral voice in contemporary literary circles. In the 1970s and 1980s, his essays and fiction regularly took withering aim at the hypocrisies and absurdities of colonialism, and likewise at apartheid-era life in his native South Africa (this included, incidentally, a thoughtful, if critical,review ofDispensations, Richard John Neuhaus’s own book about South Africa). His work since then has focused increasingly on questions of animal rights, on the ethics of vegetarianism, and on blurring the distinctions between fiction and autobiography.
This brief summary of his writing might suggest that his earlier stuff is better, but that’s not necessarily the case: Coetzee is neither a lock-brained ideologue nor a decadent literary tinkerer. Rather, he is a writer driven to explore questions of human dignity, justice, and self-knowledge, all in a historical-cultural moment that, he recognizes, has rejected higher-order grounds for answering them. Alive to the consequences of this, Coetzee is not calling for any kind of return to the fullness of the Judeo-Christian proposition, but he’s certainly not celebrating the gawping rupture that’s come after it, either.