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Cowboys, ‘Hottentots’ and the Vietcong

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Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, a small city much preoccupied in the 1980s (and still today) with a frontier culture of rodeos and Cowboys-versus-Indians, I was schooled in the histories and myths of the American West, in which the heroes were invariably white, save perhaps Sacajawea, who was presented less as a heroine than as an aid to heroes, winning her place in the schoolbooks only because of her service to those two white explorers, Lewis and Clark. The America of my childhood was and remains a culture whose heroes were usually adventurers, land-grabbers or warriors.

From an early age, I was aware that my father’s lack of military service in Vietnam – a bad knee effectively burned his draft card – marked our family, already vocal liberals, as somehow inadequately American in the dead centre of the continent’s conservative and fervently patriotic heartland.

Many have speculated, rightly or wrongly, about the similarities in the histories of South Africa and the US, both former colonies, both countries steeped in frontier culture, both disastrously scarred by the influence of white European settlers on indigenous populations. In the twentieth century, both countries were involved in indefensible wars ostensibly fought to halt the progress of Communism – South Africa in Angola, the US in Vietnam. The national mirroring, of course, is highly imperfect: in the US, the struggle for Native American rights was eclipsed by the Civil Rights movement. There was no Martin Luther King Jr. for the Pawnee, no Mandela for the Sioux, and the little progress that has been made in the last decades has been mostly economic. Since 1994, South Africa has faced its history with impressive candour; America’s reckoning is still pending.

Though J. M. Coetzee is now internationally fêted as South Africa’s second Nobel Laureate in Literature, his early novels remain largely ignored. His first, Dusklands, is especially worth rediscovering. Drawing a

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Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, a small city much preoccupied in the 1980s (and still today) with a frontier culture of rodeos and Cowboys-versus-Indians, I was schooled in the histories and myths of the American West, in which the heroes were invariably white, save perhaps Sacajawea, who was presented less as a heroine than as an aid to heroes, winning her place in the schoolbooks only because of her service to those two white explorers, Lewis and Clark. The America of my childhood was and remains a culture whose heroes were usually adventurers, land-grabbers or warriors.

From an early age, I was aware that my father’s lack of military service in Vietnam – a bad knee effectively burned his draft card – marked our family, already vocal liberals, as somehow inadequately American in the dead centre of the continent’s conservative and fervently patriotic heartland. Many have speculated, rightly or wrongly, about the similarities in the histories of South Africa and the US, both former colonies, both countries steeped in frontier culture, both disastrously scarred by the influence of white European settlers on indigenous populations. In the twentieth century, both countries were involved in indefensible wars ostensibly fought to halt the progress of Communism – South Africa in Angola, the US in Vietnam. The national mirroring, of course, is highly imperfect: in the US, the struggle for Native American rights was eclipsed by the Civil Rights movement. There was no Martin Luther King Jr. for the Pawnee, no Mandela for the Sioux, and the little progress that has been made in the last decades has been mostly economic. Since 1994, South Africa has faced its history with impressive candour; America’s reckoning is still pending. Though J. M. Coetzee is now internationally fêted as South Africa’s second Nobel Laureate in Literature, his early novels remain largely ignored. His first, Dusklands, is especially worth rediscovering. Drawing a keenly observed connecting line backwards through history, it links the American war in Vietnam with the European land grab at the southern tip of Africa in the eighteenth century. The long tradition of frontier literature in former British colonies – Australia, South Africa and the US being the strongest exemplars – has tended to recount the experiences of strangers in geographically great and strange lands, and in so far as they matter, the settlers’ interactions with native populations in ‘frontier’ spaces. The frontier itself is a fundamentally colonial concept. Frontiers – global, personal and psychological – dominate the two narratives of Dusklands. The first half, entitled ‘The Vietnam Project’, is set in the early 1970s in La Jolla, California, and narrated by Eugene Dawn. Under the supervision of a boss named Coetzee, Dawn is preparing a report on psychological warfare for the US Department of Defense. Struggling away inside the austerely furnished Kennedy Institute, Dawn writes his report ‘facing east into the rising sun and in a mood of poignant regret (poindre, to pierce) that I am rooted in the evening-lands’. Nonconformist Dawn is plagued by feelings of suffocation, lacking sexual fulfilment in his marriage, and detached from his 5-year-old son, Martin. Dawn carries with him twenty-four photographs of atrocities committed by US servicemen in Vietnam. Among them, two Special Forces soldiers smile with their trophies: the severed heads of three Vietnamese men. In another, a Texan sergeant carries a young Vietnamese woman (perhaps even a girl) on his erect penis. These photos, far from repulsing Dawn, arouse him where his wife no longer does. Coetzee’s unflinching description of the imagined photos is disturbingly and uncannily resonant with the images of hostage beheadings and American crimes at the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. Dawn’s narrative, centred around the cold-blooded introduction to his report, ends with his kidnapping Martin and running away to the Loco Motel in the San Bernardino mountains, where he tries to exert paternal influence on his son (by shutting him in the motel bathroom when he cries), and to make sense of his own place in relation to the war. After stabbing his son with a fruit knife, Dawn is institutionalized and left wondering ‘whose fault I am’. He remains haunted by the faces of the people in the photographs he once carried with him, anticipating a theme which surfaces in Coetzee’s 2003 novel Elizabeth Costello. Costello condemns real-life author Paul West for his grisly account of the execution of Hitler’s ‘would-be assassins’ in The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, considering that a writer, even though well intentioned, has a duty not to describe evil in graphic detail, for fear of propagating it. Dusklands is a virtual catalogue of evils, described in painful detail. The second half of the novel, ‘The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee’, is framed by layers of post-modernist play (‘Edited, with an Afterword, by S. J. Coetzee’ and ‘Translated by J. M. Coetzee’), and throws the reader two centuries backwards, to the frontier of the southern tip of Africa in the mid-eighteenth century. Jacobus Coetzee laments what he regards as the gradual decline of the white settlers and the inevitable rise of the ‘Hottentots’ – the term used by early European settlers for the Khoikhoi people of the Western Cape. The core of Jacobus’s narrative concerns an elephant-hunting expedition to today’s Namaqualand, and his encounter with the indigenous Namaqua people, ‘wild Hottentots’ (as opposed to his own ‘Hottentot’ servants) whose welcome is less hospitable than Jacobus had been led to expect. After a violent and embarrassing encounter with a Namaqua village, he returns with reinforcements to murder the villagers and destroy any trace of the settlement. Reflecting on his murderous revenge, Jacobus asserts:
I am an explorer. My essence is to open what is closed, to bring light to what is dark. If the Hottentots comprise an immense world of delight, it is an impenetrable world, impenetrable to men like me, who must either skirt it, which is to evade our mission, or clear it out of the way.
Dusklands, told as it is by unreliable narrators, demands careful and attentive reading. Coetzee has asserted that he would ‘regard it as morally questionable to write something like the second part of Dusklands – a fiction, note – from a position that is not historically complicit’, and by placing his own name within the fiction, he underlines this complicity. Thankfully, men like Jacobus Coetzee failed to destroy the Khoikhoi. In Dusklands, Coetzee offers a haunting and unsettling assessment of empire, stripping the varnish from the frontier romance in a book which remains unsettlingly resonant and strikingly timely three decades after its first publication. Two years ago, on my first visit to South Africa, I went to the Little Karoo Arts Festival in Oudtshoorn, in the Western Cape. If the songs and signs had not been in Afrikaans, if there had been beef jerky instead of kudu biltong for sale, I might have been at Omaha’s annual River City Roundup. Frontier culture persists in Britain’s former colonies, but what became clear to me in Oudtshoorn was the way in which South Africa’s frontier culture – and even Afrikaans, the primary language of that culture – has clearly been co-opted and transformed by the indigenous peoples of the Cape, alive and immense in their delight, rooted in their place, though sharing it in ways the first European settlers could never have anticipated.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 7 © Patrick Denman Flanery 2005


About the contributor

Patrick Denman Flanery was a book scout for a film company in New York before quitting to pursue a doctorate in English at St Cross College, Oxford. He is writing a thesis on the publishing history of Evelyn Waugh.

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