Reading In the Heart of the Country
I create myself in the words that create me.I've recently completed a draft of a paper on J.M. Coetzee's second novel, In the Heart of the Country, writing about the book and its contexts (with regard to trauma theory and Afrikaner Nationalism), but as I read various scholarly analyses of it, as well as reviews of the novel when it was first published, what struck me was the book's relative neglect compared to Coetzee's other novels, and the general lack of enthusiasm for it. When I first read it some years ago, I found it befuddling and often tedious. But it stuck with me, even haunted me, and that's why I decided to take some time digging into it. Older now, more experienced in reading Coetzee, I found it immensely rich and a powerful reading experience. Though I've spent a few months reading and re-reading it closely, I still feel like I'm only beginning to get a grasp of all it's up to.
—In the Heart of the Country
It is impossible to sum up In the Heart of the Country through a simple phrase such as, "This novel is about _________." That blank is full of possibilities. Those possibilities are, in fact, primarily what the book is about: the possibilities (and limits) of meaning.
It is a novel, so there are characters, a setting, and narrative. The protagonist is the narrator, a woman on a farm in the Karoo sometime around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Toward the end of the book, she is referred to as Magda, and that is what I will call her. The text consists of 266 numbered sections, most of them one paragraph long, only a few of them longer than a page. The first 35 sections (pp. 1-16 of the Penguin edition) tell a mostly coherent story of Magda's father arriving back at the farm with a new bride, and then, eventually, Magda's murder of them. Section 36, though, restarts this story — the father is not dead, nor is he the one who returned to the farm with a bride. Instead, in this version, the black servant Hendrik returns with a bride, the father asserts his power over her, Hendrik discovers what the father and the bride are up to, and Magda fires a shotgun blindly into the father's bedroom, fatally wounding him. After the father's death, Hendrik becomes more of a tyrant and eventually rapes Magda, then he and the bride abandon her on the farm. Then the father is not dead anymore, and Magda, alone, nurses him in his silent old age. Also, she hears voices from "flying machines" — voices she thinks are in Spanish, but which are actually in a made-up mix of languages. What the voices from the flying machines say are quotes and paraphrases from various texts, including ones that were published well after the time of the book's setting (e.g. a translation of Luis Ceruda from Octavio Paz's The Labyrinth of Solitude).
Those are the primary events of the novel, but they don't give much sense of the book, because Magda's greatest obsession is her own identity and, especially, her textuality. Though Coetzee has rarely said much about his novels, he's said more about In the Heart of the Country than any other, and the substance of his statements is generally the same: Magda is a figure in a book.
This gets at one of the central reasons, I think, for the novel's neglect and difficulty. It is explicitly not a novel of psychological realism, and yet it presents us with a narrating figure screaming out for psychologizing. Indeed, it's quite clear that Coetzee was playing around with some concepts from Freud, especially regarding female hysteria. Though he makes it tempting to read Magda as a case of hysteria (or, to apply a later formulation, trauma), it doesn't work. Psychology is just one of the texts united in the figure of Magda.
As readers, we like psychologically coherent characters. Much of what we do as readers is, often, similar to amateur psychotherapy. We look for characters' motivations, obstacles, obsessions, wounds. Writers typically write for such readers. Psychological coherence creates the illusion of realism, and readers typically devalue texts where characters behave contrary to the expectations we have built up of their desires and proclivities. We build coherent stories of characters in life, too — we expect people to act in particular ways, to like and dislike mostly the same things over time, etc. We also try to live up to these expectations ourselves. We like our identities to be coherent. We prefer to be readable.
One of the great achievements of In the Heart of the Country is how it demonstrates the ways that our desire for coherence creates the stories we tell about ourselves, and the stories that are told about us. The self is a story. "I make it all up," Magda writes, "in order that it shall make me up."
The self is not just any story, however. There are constraints. Realism is not a matter of what is real, but what can be made believable. Context constrains our text. Magda's context is that of a white woman on a farm in the Karoo in South Africa at a particular time of history. In the Heart of the Country was written in the late 20th century, and so it exists after many stories of such women preceded it. Magda's believability, then, requires her to behave according to her genre. In the Heart of the Country was Coetzee's first novel to explore the implications of the plaasroman, the South African farm novel, a genre he would return to many times. (Theresa Dovey, in the first book on Coetzee, proposed that In the Heart of the Country is a rewriting of Schreiner's Story of an African Farm. It is, but it is also much more.) Magda is a figure who resembles a woman Freud would have categorized as a hysteric, and thus she is part of another genre, another set of expectations. She is a figure of a woman, and within Afrikaner culture of the time, women suffered many expectations and limitations because of their gender. She is a figure of a white Afrikaner, another identity full of constraints.
In the right circumstances, the constraints of identity are comforting — they help us see ourselves as part of a group, they let us feel meaningful and proud, they help us fit the idea of "I" into a "we". Such identities can then be wielded for social and political purpose. They make us into something that is like one thing and unlike another.
But identities that disempower are ones we bristle against. Magda, though part of the white power structure, is disempowered by her other identity markers. She desires a total freedom, the freedom to tell any story about herself, to start from scratch. She dislikes what can be read of her, and wants a new reading:
Original sin, degeneracy of the line: there are two fine, bold hypotheses for my ugly face and my dark desires, and for my disinclination to leap out of bed this instant and cure myself. But explanations do not interest me. I am beyond the why and wherefore of myself. Fate is what I am interested in; or, failing fate, whatever it is that is going to happen to me. The woman in the nightcap watching me from the mirror, the woman who in a certain sense is me, will dwindle and expire here in the heart of the country, unless she has at least a thin porridge of event to live on. I am not interested in becoming one of those people who look into mirrors and see nothing, or walk in the sun and cast no shadow. It is up to me.This freedom is impossible, though, because there are always hypotheses about her, no matter what story she tells. She is not just a figure in a book, she is a figure in a book with a genre, a language, a set of expectations. If there are to be events, even a thin porridge of them, they will be events that become interpreted into a story, and thus contribute to an idea of her: hypotheses and explanations.
The voices Magda hears from the flying machines present her with all sorts of different texts — most of them ones that, in reality, she would have no knowledge of. For instance, a sentence from Jacques Lacan's "The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis" (1953): "It is a world of words that creates a world of things." Then there are sentences from Rousseau, Spinoza, William Blake, John Calvin (of all these voices, the one an Afrikaner woman of the 19th century might plausibly be familiar with). A sentence of Pascal, from the Pensées, seems especially meaningful in the context: "God is hidden, and every religion that does not affirm that God is hidden is not true." The hermeneutical tradition is a religious tradition: analysis of scriptures leads to understanding of God. But if God is hidden, analysis must always be incomplete, tentative, hypothetical.
Which of the stories Magda tells is "true", and which not? It's impossible to say. They are all stories in a book, and thus all equally true and false. As a reader, you can either accept that, or you must admit that you prefer certain interpretations of the fictive reality — that you privilege particular stories over others, because they get you what you want.
Coetzee was often criticized in the 1980s for not engaging more explicitly with the political realities of his world, the world of apartheid South Africa. He did not write the preferred social realism. His books could not be reduced to slogans. In fact, those books criticized the linguistic, narrative, and political structures that led texts to be reduced to slogans. In the Heart of the Country does this as well as any of his novels, particularly in how it shows the discourse of Afrikaner Nationalism to be a discourse so constraining as to strangle its subjects.
The Soweto uprising occurred just as In the Heart of the Country was being published, and though there were certainly many factors leading to it, much of the revolt began from the requirement that all schools conduct their lessons in Afrikaans. In South Africa, questions of language became questions of life and death. Similarly, history was distorted through the Nationalist lens for specific political purposes. The story of Europeans arriving in southern Africa was a story of white people arriving at the same time as native Africans, and thus having equal right to the land. This was pure balderdash, but nonetheless it was this story that was promoted because it served ideological purposes. The stories of Afrikaner culture were ones that simplified history (and Afrikaner culture) into a tale of "primitive Calvinists" triumphing over the frontier, then fighting the British, then creating a country for themselves, the chosen people. Some of Coetzee's scholarly work has shown how travel narratives and novels contributed to or struggled against all of this, but it is his fiction that presents it most challengingly and complexly. It is in the fiction that we can truly explore the ways texts and narratives contribute to both personal and social constraints, because the novels not only offer the ideas, but enact them.
To read and appreciate In the Heart of the Country, then, we have to be ready to read ourselves reading it. Magda is not a character in the way that a figure in a novel of psychological realism is a character; she is a textual effect. Or, more accurately, "she" is the result of textual effects and then produces more textual effects. The richness of the novel derives from the multiplicity of possible effects. The knowledge and expectations we bring to the text matter profoundly. Desiring psychological realism, narrative coherence, and linear plotting, we will be forced into frustration. We could let this frustration be nothing more than frustration, and could, then, proclaim the book a failure, but to really read this novel, we need to let it help us reflect on our readerly frustration, to work through it, and to see what lives on the other side. Similarly, we can use the novel to see the limits — and, hence, possibilities — of our liberation. (Who are "we"? What does this we desire liberating from?) Magda ends up in silence, because that is all her context allows her: the death of art, the death of expression. Magda's fate is that of being a particular figure in a book. You and I are not that figure. Our languages are different and the book of our self is from another genre, one with its own constraints and freedoms. How will we read it? How will it be read? What makes us legible to the world?
A few notes on some of the scholarship, while it's on my mind...
Of the studies of this novel that I've encountered so far, my two favorites are Susana Onega's "Trauma, Madness, and the Ethics of Narration in J.M. Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country", an essay in The Splintered Glass: Facets of Trauma in the Post-colony and Beyond, ed. M. Dolores Herrero and Sonia Baelo-Allué, and "Charting J. M. Coetzee's Middle Voice" by Brian Macaskill, Contemporary Literature 35: 3, Autumn 1994. Those two seem to me to do the best job of keeping the text complex.
Chiara Briganti's "A Bored Spinster with a Locked Diary: The Politics of Hysteria in 'In the Heart of the Country'" (Research in African Literatures 25:4, Winter 1994) is excellent on the novel's use of concepts of Freudian hysteria, but I think Briganti's approach simplifies the figure of Magda too much. (I also think Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle is at least as relevant to the novel as his earlier writings.) Susan Gallagher's A Story of South Africa : J.M. Coetzee's Fiction in Context is very good on the historical context of the novel, but simplifies it too much by reading it primarily as historical fiction. "The Taint of the Censor: J. M. Coetzee and the Making of In the Heart of the Country" by Hermann Wittenberg provides fascinating background on the book's complex publishing history, and J.C. Kannemeyer's J.M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing provides additional valuable context. Though Theresa Dovey's The Novels of J.M. Coetzee: Lacanian Allegories is sometimes reductive, the application of Lacan to Coetzee is valuable, and it's a shame the book is long out of print and difficult to find. I got a copy via interlibrary loan (and was frustrated to discover many chapters of it marred by some idiot's underlines and notes). Other books and articles have some good, scattered insights, but the above are the ones I have, so far, most benefited from.