Dusklands by J.M. Coetzee

Dusklands by J.M. Coetzee, reviewed by Lisbeth Ekelof at The Content Reader.

Dusklands contains two separate stories, seen from a male point of view. In both stories there is a person called Coetzee; one tyrannic boss (at least seen from Eugene Dawns perspective) in the first story and a tyrannic land owner in South Africa in the 1760s in the latter part. The method to use the name of the writer in the stories, makes us believe that what is told has actually happened. One could say that it gives a sort of authenticity to the stories. The prologue, in both stories, indicates that what we are about to read, has already happened. Both stories are told from first-person singular, presens. Both stories highlights and indicates, via descriptions and figuration, the times they are portraying.

The Vietnam Project

In the first story we meet Eugene Dawn, who works for a man named Coetzee on a project that aims to find a way to win the war via mythological ideas about the enemy. The story indicates that we are at the end of the Vietnam war. The US is desperat and seeking all possibilities to turn the luck of war. The more Dawn goes into what is happening in Vietnam, the more he tries to put himself under the skin of the traditions, cultures and way of thinking of the enemy, the more he goes into his own psychological downfall. The suspicion against a mentally, strong enemy, existing in a world quite foreign, also influences his way of seeing his own life. The terrible situation for the civilians in Vietnam, makes him reflect on his own personal life, his wife and son. Suspicion turns to paranoia as regards his wife, and he takes his son on a trip, more looking like a kidnapping. In the end, when the police finds him, he stabs his son. Even his own world has become unworldly.

The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee

The other story takes us back in time. All the way back to the Dutch colonisation of South Africa. Here we follow a land owner as he goes for a trip into the wilderness to hunt. The description of the owner and his men/slaves gives a clear indication that we are transported to an earlier, more barbaric time in the history of the country. We find words to describe the local population, that we would never use today. Also the humanitarian values are from a lost world.  The story is told in a way that highlights the time by the description of the horses, spears, villages, negotiations with the population, clothes and customs. Above all, land owner's colonial values of their own greatness and dominion over a more primitive population.


The two stories are quite different and I have a little bit of a problem to see how ”they belong”. Maybe they don’t belong at all? The story about the hunting trip is terrible in all its truthfulness, describing how the colonialists saw their environment and the local population. The story is very well written, exciting and gives an indication of the development in the country. The story highlights a historical, colonial perspective and mirrors, in an excellent manor, the time it describes.

The Vietnam project seems to be totally separate from the other story. Maybe Coetzee wants to tell us, that even 200 years later we have not learned anything from history. The colonialism is continuing with a new face. Dawns path into a psychosis  can be seen a the bad conscience of a people for a war that can not be won. It can also be interpreted as a way of depicting contemporary events where a population starts questioning the reason for the war. Also as an interpretation of  all the soldiers that fought in Vietnam and came back with psychological problems. When an old colonial tradition is mixing with modern times and modern values.

This is the second book I read from Coetzee, the other one being Disgrace. I must admit, that  I am not entirely fond of Coetzee’s stories, although he is an excellent writer and manages very well to put a message through his books. I must also admit, that he is probably one of the more easier Nobel Prize winners to read, except the Swedish winners through the years, which I find more accessible than most other winners.

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