South African novelist and critic whose sophisticated narratives examine the states of mind produced by apartheid and neocolonialism while reflecting on the practice and function of writing.
Born in Cape Town, Coetzee lectured in English literature at the State University of New York in Buffalo after obtaining his doctorate in Texas. In 1972 he returned to his birthplace to teach literature at the University of Cape Town, where he is now a professor. Dusklands (1974), his first major published work, consists of two novellas, the first set against US involvement in Vietnam and the second relating the adventures of an eighteenth-century Boer frontiersman in the South African interior. In the Heart of the Country (1977), Coetzee's first full-length novel, won South Africa's prestigious CNA award for its portrayal of an Afrikaner spinster who becomes psychotic and self-obsessed on a remote backveld farm. Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), which also won a CNA award, tells the story of a magistrate who becomes disillusioned with the empire he serves until, no longer able to bear his complicity with the regime's injustices, he rebels.
An advocate of contemporary linguistic and literary theory, Coetzee often uses complex analogies and allusions. Life and Times of Michael K (which won Coetzee a third CNA award and the Booker Prize in 1983), mirrors Kafka's The Trial in its rendering of the mute determined survival of its protagonist fleeing a war. In Foe (1986) Coetzee reworks Defoe's Robinson Crusoe; in Age of Iron (1990) a parody of Dante's Inferno underlies the story of the relationship between a white woman with terminal cancer and the black tramp who becomes her companion; and in The Master of Petersburg (1994) Coetzee describes Dostoevsky's participation in the events that become the subject matter of that novelist's The Devils.
Coetzee's subtle depictions of isolated self-involved individuals, often set in remote or unspecified places and at obscure times, have left him open to the charge of evading the realities of apartheid South Africa. The great strength of Coetzee's novels, however, lies in their insights into psychological states produced by oppression, both in the oppressor and the oppressed, rather than in a more direct representation of the machinery of that oppression; and in their resistance to what Coetzee has termed the ‘colonization of the novel by the discourse of history’.
Coetzee's critical works include White Writing (1988) and Giving Offence: Essays on Censorship (1996). A volume of autobiography, Boyhood, was published in 1997.