J. M. Coetzee’s War Against Global English

It may come as a surprise to most of J. M. Coetzee’s readers that he published a new novel in August. “El Polaco,” which is set in Barcelona, is about a romantic entanglement between Witold, a concert pianist of about seventy known for his controversial interpretations of Chopin, and Beatriz, a music-loving Catalan woman in her forties who assists him during his stay in the city. Fired more by mind than body, the two attempt to conduct their affair using the kind of stilted, colorless “global English” to which international communication so often defaults. Apart from an initial carnal encounter, their romance takes place in large part by correspondence: Witold writes Beatriz poems, but, with English verse lying beyond his grasp, he does so in his native Polish. Beatriz engages a translator in order not just to understand but evaluate Witold’s poems, which she gives modest marks.

A short novel, restrained even by Coetzee’s standards, “El Polaco” is made up entirely of numbered paragraphs, some of which consist of a single sentence. The first: “La mujer es la primera en causarle problemas, seguida pronto por el hombre.” Witold is el hombre; Beatriz is la mujer. But occasional slips in the dissimulating, pseudo-objective voice of the text suggest that she’s also the narrator. Another sign of her role is the book’s language: though first written in English, “El Polaco” has so far only been published in a Spanish translation. The translator, Mariana Dimópulos, played an unusually active role in the novel’s creation: Coetzee has spoken of incorporating her suggestions about how a woman like Beatriz would think, speak, and act back into the original manuscript.

“El Polaco” is the second of Coetzee’s novels to appear in Spanish first, but he began privileging translations much earlier in his career: in the past twenty years, he’s seen to it that many of his books be made available in Dutch before any other language. Fêted in Amsterdam in 2010, Coetzee expressed appreciation at being “read in a language in which I feel myself to be a somewhat more humorous writer than in the original English.” “Humorous” is far less commonly applied to his writing than adjectives like “cold,” “austere,” “rigorous,” “spare”; Martin Amis famously described his style as “predicated on transmitting absolutely no pleasure.” But to his enthusiasts Coetzee transmits a great deal of pleasure—in his outwardly severe, circumscribed manner—and exhibits an abiding if vanishingly subtle sense of humor. I would rank his “Diary of a Bad Year” (best known for its unconventional form, with separate texts stacked vertically on the page) as the funniest novel of the twenty-first century, despite having read only the English original, not the presumably funnier Dutch translation.

Coetzee’s connection with Dutch (a language whose literature he also translates into English), comes by way of its South African descendant. The author “has a deep relationship with the Afrikaans language,” his biographer David Attwell writes. Yet whether Coetzee can be counted among its native speakers is unclear. The grandson of “Afrikaans-speaking anglophiles,” he grew up using English at home with his mother and father; “both parents would have associated English with high culture and Afrikaans with low,” though other relatives mixed the two freely. (In the autobiographicalBoyhood,” Coetzee writes of suddenly coming into bilingualism: “He still remembers how he burst in on his mother, shouting, ‘Listen! I can speak Afrikaans!’ ”) The result of such an upbringing, and his subsequent stretches in England and the United States, is that, “to an English-speaking South African ear, Coetzee’s spoken English is unlocatable.”

Never has Coetzee enjoyed an uncomplicated relationship with language, least of all the English language. “El Polaco” comes nearly half a century after his début novel, “Dusklands,” which was published in his native South Africa in 1974. That book, as Coetzee put it a few years ago during an interview in Madrid, was written by a young man “born in South Africa, of an ethnicity which is a little hard to define,” with the appearance of an Afrikaner but without “several of the characteristic properties” of Afrikaner identity. “This young man starts writing fiction in an acquired language—namely, English. He finds a publisher in South Africa, a small publisher.” His book sells a few thousand copies and wins local prizes, “but he’s got larger ambitions. His ambition is to be published in ‘the real world,’ which to him means London, but particularly it means New York”—and, in any case, publishing in English rather than Afrikaans.

In a 2019 interview at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Coetzee himself said that “as a child, as a young man, as a student, I had absolutely no doubt that access to the English language was liberating me from the narrow world view of the Afrikaner.” But maturity has introduced a distance: “I have a good command of English, spoken and written, but more and more it feels to me like the kind of command that a foreigner might have,” he said, in 2018, at the Hay literary festival in Cartagena. “This may be the reason why the English I write is so easily translatable. I’ve worked closely with translators of my books into languages that I know, and it seems to me that the versions that my translators produce are in no way inferior to the original.”

In his work, Coetzee has suggested that his interest in Spanish dates back at least to the early nineteen-sixties. As a fresh University of Cape Town graduate, he moved to London and found work as a computer programmer. The protagonist of his autobiographical novel “Youth,” in that same situation, spends his free time attempting to learn various European languages. “He reads Cesar Vallejo in a dual-language text, reads Nicolas Guillén, reads Pablo Neruda. Spanish is full of barbaric-sounding words whose meaning he cannot even guess at, but that does not matter. At least every letter is pronounced, down to the double r.”

In recent years, Coetzee has become particularly involved with Argentinean literary culture. His relations with that country began late in his life, he said in a 2015 talk at the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, and “came as a considerable surprise.” From his first trip to Argentina, Coetzee said, he encountered “a reading public that really took books seriously and read books intelligently.” Beginning in the mid-twenty-tens, Coetzee directed a seminar series on literature of the Southern Hemisphere at the Universidad Nacional de San Martín; he has also curated a “personal library” series for the publishing house El Hilo de Ariadna. (His selections include Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” Samuel Beckett’s “Watt,” and Patrick White’s “The Solid Mandala.”) But the major work of his Argentinean period, and clearest literary reflection of his evolving views on language, has been a trilogy of novels: “The Childhood of Jesus,” “The Schooldays of Jesus,” and “The Death of Jesus.”

All three “Jesus” novels were translated into Spanish, though only the third came out in Spanish translation first. They take place in a somewhat abstracted netherworld to which its characters seem to have emigrated from forgotten previous lives. One of these immigrants, a young boy named Davíd—the apparent Christ figure of the title—learns to read the language from a children’s edition of “Don Quixote,” whose story he goes on to preach as a kind of gospel. Coetzee’s own references to Cervantes’s work go back decades, and it’s undeniably tempting (especially given his increasing physical resemblance to its white-bearded hero) to apply the word “quixotic” to his late-career stand against the seemingly unstoppable tide of English. “I resist absolutely the idea that English has become so universal a language that it must be the language of the next life, too,” Coetzee said, at UNAM. “In these three books, we all have to learn Spanish in order to speak to our neighbors. Basta.”

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