5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
The Cold Fish Are Jumpin'
, 6 Oct. 2009
This review is from: Summertime (Hardcover)
Focusing on a five-year period in the seventies, a biographer in 2008/9 has conducted interviews with a handful of people who knew a now-dead writer named 'John Coetzee.' Summertime is made up of transcripts of these interviews and fragments of the dead man's diary-notebooks.
When I think of the phrase 'fictionalised autobiography,' I think of a book in which the story is basically true but utilises some literary devices in order to better tell the tale and perhaps includes a large degree of self-serving embellishment. With this endlessly fascinating new novel, Coetzee twists this so much it is inside out.
He has taken the idea of semi-autobiographical fiction and switched the two halves around, so to speak: he obscures the fiction beneath a veil of fact. He gives his central character his own name, aspects of his history, his nationality and his literary career but other crucial details are not accurate. For example, it is hugely important throughout the novel that the character is unmarried, a loner bordering on asexual, but in fact during the period covered in the book - 1972-77 - he was married and had two young children (according to Wonkipedia anyway (I know, I know.)) The usual question of "how much of the author is in the character?" becomes here "how much of the character is not in the author?" After reading this playful, fertile and surprisingly swift little book your mind will be pregnant with questions: to what extent does the truth behind fiction matter? To what extent can fiction illuminate truth while obscuring it? Can one write one's own life? How much of us is left behind in the minds of others after our physical demise? How truthful would that picture be, and how much would that matter? And on and on. (Of course maybe he just wanted to write his ex-wife out of existence!)
While Coetzee is constructing his playground of dualities - fiction/fact, art/artist, public/private (dichotomizing around, you might say) - it is surely no accident how blackly funny it all is: instead of massaging the reality into a more flattering shape, the version Coetzee creates of 'himself' is certainly not a self-serving one. He uses every opportunity to humiliate 'himself' in the most excruciatingly personal ways, to the point of over-kill. It's as if Charlie Kaufman remade Rashomon. Also interesting is Coetzee's depiction of the time and place (seventies South Africa, as apartheid was itself coming apart though long before it was finally dismantled), but of course the book forces us to question how truthful one man's perspective can be, on himself, his companions and his times.
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