In the last stanza of Auden’s well known September 1, 1939 the speaker declares that he is composed “of Eros and of dust”. Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country is suffused with the same Eros and dust. The story is narrated by Magda, “farmyard spinster, wrapped in the embrace of [her] furies”. The furies that pursue Magda are primal, sexual desire and a drive toward negation.
Magda reflects, “I have not lived, the joy and willingness of an unused body now dusty, dry, unsavoury.” It is the same pervasive dust that encrusts the house in the desert, her father after a day’s work, the servants as they return from a journey. In a dusty abandoned schoolhouse, she speculates whether beneath an old school bench she might find her father’s initials “beneath the dust [..] hacked into the wood with a penknife”. In despair, she wonders of her father, “Must I carve out my beseechings with a knife on your flesh? Do you think you can die before you have said Yes to me?”
Narrated through Magda’s internal monologue, a ‘spinster’s flights of imagination,’ all is interiority and any distinction between imagination and reality have been effaced. There is no certainty whether the acts of rape, assault and murder occur or are Magda’s psychological projections. At one point, Hendrik, a servant is told to batter down the “one door that, as far back in time as I can remember, has always stood locked. “What do you keep in the locked room? I used to ask my father. There is nothing in it, he used to reply”. As the dust in the room clears Magda, dull, pallid “jagged virgin” observes “The bed is neatly made up. I pat it and dust rises from the grey pillows, the grey sheets. Everywhere are cobwebs. They have made a room without a window, I say to Hendrik”. The same servant, later, ostensibly, beats and rapes Magda.
There is not a misplaced sentence in this risky novel, which could have failed in so many ways. It is arguably flawless and immensely powerful.