Dark Austerity

What he would write if he could, if it were not Mr. Whelan reading it, would be something darker, something that, once it began to flow from his pen, would spread across the page out of control, like spilt ink. Like spilt ink, like shadows racing across the face of still water, like lightning crackling across the sky.

Writes J. M. Coetzee in the first in the trilogy of his fictionalised memoirs Boyhood. Stark, haunting and dark as life, Coetzee’s account of the early years of his childhood. Hard to believe that Coetzee packed so much into a mere 166 pages (Vintage paperback). I put the book down to make tea and copy passage after passage into my notebook. A stunning achievement that I shall follow with Youth the second of the trilogy.

A Special Day

For some time I’ve anticipated with pleasure reading J. M. Coetzee’s trilogy of fictionalised memoirs. Coetzee’s ability in Boyhood to conjure up his early perceptions of an African childhood is intoxicating.

Agnes occupies a place in his life that he does not yet understand. He first set eyes on her when he was seven. Invited to Skipperskloof, they arrived late one afternoon after a long train journey. Clouds scudded across the sky, there was no warmth in the sun. Under the chill winter light the veld stretched out a deep reddish blue without a trace of green. Even the farmhouse looked unwelcoming: an austere white rectangle with a steep zinc roof. It was not at all like Voëlfontein; he did not want to be there.

Agnes, a few months older than himself, was allotted to be his companion. She took him for a walk in the veld. She went barefoot; she did not even own shoes. Soon they were out of sight of the house, in the middle of nowhere. They began to talk. She had pigtails and a a lisp, which he liked. He lost his reserve. as he spoke he forgot what language he was speaking: thoughts simply turned to words within him, transparent words.

What he said to Agnes that afternoon he can no longer remember. But he told her everything, everything he did, everything he knew, everything he hoped for. In silence she took it all in. Even as he spoke he knew the day was special because of her.

The sun began to sink, fiery crimson yet icy. The clouds darkened, the wind grew sharper, cutting through his clothes. Agnes was wearing nothing but a thin cotton dress; her feet were blue with cold.

‘Where have you been? What have you been doing?’ asked the grown-ups when they returned home. ‘Niks nie,’ answered Agnes. Nothing.

Do you recall those serene days of childhood, wandering purposelessly all day (do any children do this now?), returning only in time for dinner? What did we do? Nothing. And lots of it.