Of all the places - a novel & A life in search of a narrative: the construction of narrative identity in the autobiographical fiction of J.M. Coetzee.
Licata, Ryan Anthony
A novel – Of All the Places. Drawing on parallels between apartheid South Africa and the present far-right politics of Italy, Of All the Places explores matters of race, nationalism, and language, and the inevitable impact these aspects have on the forging of personal identity and community with others. Synopsis: To his surprise, Marcello Zamboni, a young clerk for a Milanese life insurance firm, is urged by his bosses to investigate the circumstances behind the death of a man whose claim could result in a large pay-out to the beneficiary. Marcello’s surprise turns to reluctance when he learns that not only must he return to his hometown of Malé, deep in the mountainous valleys of northern Italy, but also that the deceased is Steyn Gela, the South African man responsible for stealing the affections of his first love, Rachele, who happens to be the sole beneficiary. Marcello’s return to Malé means confronting his past and all that he purposefully left behind: the town’s small-minded ways, his alcoholic mother, his boyhood foes the Bonetti brothers, and the memories of Steyn and Rachele. When Marcello finds Steyn’s diary, what begins as a routine inquiry into the cause of Steyn’s death turns into a calamitous uncovering of personal, criminal, and political intrigues. In his search for the truth behind one man’s death, Marcello becomes involved in discovering the truth behind the lives of others who knew him. He must not only contend with the needs of his girlfriend Francesca, intent on having a baby, and the ever-urgent demands of his Milanese bosses, but also unravel the conspiracies of an underground crime ring, political revolutionaries, and, worst of all, his own heart. Critical Essay – A Life in Search of a Narrative: The Construction of Narrative Identity in the Autobiographical Fiction of J.M. Coetzee (word count: 27381) J.M. Coetzee’s autobiographical novels – Boyhood; Youth; Summertime – depict the author’s life refigured in three distinct periods in the life of a protagonist. By adopting Paul Ricoeur’s theory of narrative identity, as per his work Oneself as Another (1992), the essay attempts to show that the protagonist, as revealed through a continuity of identity over time, is the same person across the three books, and illustrates a connectivity across the lives of the author, protagonist, and narrator. Narrated in third person, present tense mode, the novels lend a degree of psychological distance to the focalization, despite a sense of temporal immediacy. Fictional interventions are presented – most notably in Summertime, where the reader is told that Coetzee is, in fact, dead. Despite the fictional qualities of the three narratives, an undeniable consistency of character exists through the sequences of time which the books follow. The Ricoeurian idea of permanence in time is categorised by two models: firstly, by character, formed by the lasting dispositions seen in one’s habits and acquired identifications; and, secondly, by a sense of keeping one’s word, that is, by faithfulness to oneself and perseverance to maintain one’s identity. These two conceptual models are applied to a close textual analysis of each of Coetzee’s three autobiographical novels. For the first model, examining the protagonist’s lasting dispositions, the essay focuses on recurring themes in the oeuvre: language, race politics, place, family, sexuality, vocation. For the second model, the essay explores the idea of faithfulness as it relates to the notions of truth and ethics and, in particular, to how these terms are developed in Coetzee’s writing in confessional mode. In closing, the essay examines why Coetzee’s autobiographical novels are not so much a revelation of his true self, but rather a study of himself through the creation of a narrative identity, that is, a fictional reimagining of his identity as seen by himself and by others. Between the two poles of historical fact and fiction, in the medium that is narrative identity, there we find J.M. Coetzee. Finally, I argue that Coetzee’s exposure of himself in the polemical context of apartheid and postapartheid South Africa is also an exposure of the culture’s own racial and social transgressions; and thus, by offering forth a form of confession, and inviting others to see his personal shame, he invites others to see their own, and to take action.