Where nothing is : in the heart of the country

Par David COAD
Publication en ligne le 28 mai 2013

Texte intégral

1In his essay "Farm Novel and Plaasroman", J.-M. Coetzee writes that "Our craft is all in reading the other : gaps, inverses, undersides ; the veiled ; the dark, the buried, the feminine ; alterities."1 This comment sheds much light on the particular nature of Coetzee's second, and in many ways, most accomplished novel, In the Heart of the Country, first published in 1977. The novel foregrounds an easily recognisable quality of Coetzee's œuvre : it is writing about and by the other. In all his novels Coetzee deconstructs a master narrative discourse, to be identified with Afrikaner patriarchy. This "masculine" discourse finds its literary expression in the pastoral genre as practised in South Africa by writers of both English and Afrikaans expression. At the same time, it is a political, ideological discourse based on oppression, myth-making and phallogocentrism. As a means of subverting the authority and justification of such a logos, Coetzee turns his attention in In the Heart of the Country to the hidden underside of mythic and pastoral Afrikaner patriarchy. In order to do this, he invents a feminine subject of enunciation ; anti-pastoral is his literary mode ; paradoxically he insists on the presence of woman as blank space ; and finally he creates a female imaginary in which language is the key to transcending the self, to acquiring subjectivity and identity. The silence of Africa (of the landscape, of the feminine subject, of the blacks), is, in the words of Coetzee, a space, a space that novelistic discourse can and must fill.


2During the first decades of the twentieth century, a myth of Afrikaner identity was perpetuated which centred on the idea of a mythic and pastoral Golden Age of Afrikaner life. Following the British conquest of South Africa at the beginning of the nineteenth century, 12,000 Afrikaner men, women and children left the colony between 1835-1843, with their sheep, cattle, wagons and coloured servants and moved inland towards the heart of the country. This march is known as the Great Trek, and the participants are called the Voortrekkers. Most of the Boer population of the exodus were involved in pastoral farming. The sheepfarm described in In the Heart of the Country resembles a mythic Boer farm, after the Great Trek, in which the paternal white farmer heads a hierarchy leading down to the Coloured hired labour. Magda's father is a parody of this strong, authoritarian, implacable, masculine force celebrated in later Afrikaner mythology. The Afrikaner father was a distant and aloof patriarch – just as Magda's father is in the novel. He is shown as angry, loveless, negating, and all-demanding.

3In this patriarchal Boer society, the woman was revered as wife, mother and child bearer, then marginalised to silence. Her purity and chastity were prized as being praiseworthy feminine qualities. Coetzee uses and abuses this typical Afrikaner typology in In the Heart of the Country. It cannot be by chance that the heroine of the novel – Magda – bears the same name as the long-suffering and heroic wife of the leader of the Great Trek, Piet Retief. In the same way as the anonymous father in the novel (he stands for all Boer farmers), Magda is a parody of the quiet, submissive and virtuous Afrikaner Vrou en Moeder. But instead of fulfilling her role as progenitor, Magda is a barren spinster. Instead of a joyful white mother of an Afrikaner tribe, Coetzee presents a sterile "miserable black virgin"2 (p. 5), whose withered chastity is desecrated by a violent rape.

4In In the Heart of the Country, Coetzee takes away both the name and the voice of the Afrikaner patriarch. We seldom have reported dialogue of Magda's father and he is never focalised on internally. The author has decentred the focus from the mythic father and foregrounded the daughter instead. Magda's mother is already dead when the novel begins. She is remembered as a frail, gentle, bloodless figure. Magda suffers from an obsessive desire to kill the living and efface the dead body of her father. He is put to death twice in the novel, first by axing and then by shooting. It is as if she wants to challenge patriarchal genealogy. In the same way, Coetzee wishes to unsettle the patriarchal Afrikaner discourse based as it is on mastery, domination and exploitation of the more inferior, women and blacks.

5In the introduction to White Writing, Coetzee has the following to say about the pastoral in his country : "In South Africa pastoral art [...] looks back, usually in a spirit of nostalgia, to the calm and stability of the farm [...] it holds up the time of the forefathers as an exemplary age."3 In South Africa, the plaasroman, or farm novel, written in Afrikaans, was a dominant literary form in the 1920s and 1930s. Writers who belong to this tradition include C.M. van den Heever and Mikro. Coetzee identifies two dream topographies in South African pastoral. One is based on the idea of a benign patriarch surrounded by generations of contented children and happy serfs. It is obvious that Coetzee subverts this particular topography in In the Heart of the Country. The father there is a tyrannical seducer of his serf's wife. He has no male issue, thus no descendants will be able to inherit the farm, and his only daughter is a melancholic madwoman. Coetzee is thereby questioning the way in which the plaasroman was used to "buttress Afrikaner patriarchalism in order that a heightened significance should be attached to the acts of the founding fathers, to maintain their legacy and perpetuate their values. Thus we find the ancestors hagiographized as men and women of heroic strength, fortitude, and faith, and instituted as the originators of lineages."4 In In the Heart of the Country, Coetzee attempts a demythification of paternalistic harmony between master and servant as perpetuated by the plaasroman tradition. In addition, the presence of black labour was usually occulted in these novels – the pastoral had to be a white man's paradise. Coetzee, instead, brings to the surface the presence of a black servile population in his novel. Hendrik and Anna, the married black couple on the sheepfarm, are not just shown to be active protagonists in this pastoral world. They actually move into the master's house after his "death" on Magda's invitation. In White Writing, Coetzee asks the question : "For how can the farm become the pastoral retreat of the black man when it was his pastoral home only a generation or two ago ?"5 Coetzee puts Hendrik and Anna into the homestead as a means of suggesting historic truth : Afrikaner interlopers created spurious and illegitimate lineages.

6Alongside the plaasroman there exists an equivalent farm novel tradition written in English in South Africa. Two practitioners are Olive Schreiner and Pauline Smith. Coetzee continues the anti- pastoral mode inaugurated by Schreiner in her well-known novel of 1883, The Story of an African Farm. Like Coetzee, Olive Shreiner gives a critique of colonial culture. Her farm is run not by a hardworking patriarch, but by a sterile and slothful woman, Tant' Sannie. Both novelists have rewritten the myth of a productive, harmonious, male-dominated microcosm and substituted this with a feminine world. They have looked for and given a voice to the buried truth behind the pastoral ideal. Instead of bliss or fulfilment, both writers insist on the extreme ennui of this phallocratie universe. Tedium, boredom, languor and drudgery constitute the keynotes of Magda's existence on the farm : "we are devoured by boredom" (p. 19), she writes. Here Coetzee is reflecting nineteenth-century accounts of Boer life in the heart of the country. John Barrow in his Travels into the Interior of South Africa, published in London in 1806, writes of the Boers : "[Theirs is a] cold phlegmatic temper and [an] inactive way of life." He describes "A most lamentable picture of laziness and indolent stupidity."6 Rather than showing Magda as "the womanly warmth at the heart of this house" (p. 2) or country, Coetzee unearths the historical underside of mythic and pastoral Utopia : Boer women were extremely bored.

7A second dream topography identified by Coetzee in White Writing is that of South Africa as a "vast, empty, silent space"7, whereas pastoral idyll would rather have a humanised landscape – Mother-Earth tilled by man's plough. Like Olive Schreiner in The Story of an African Farm, Coetzee sets In the Heart of the Country in the Karoo, a desert region inland to the west of the Cape. What relation is possible, Coetzee wonders, between man and a landscape which can only be described as indifferent, empty, desolate, barren, vast and monotonous ? There is a risk that such a landscape will remain alien and impenetrable. In the Heart of the Country offers a similar topography. There are repeated references to the stony desert, hot sand, dust and the heat. One possible relation with the desert space is with the plant and insect life that we find in both Schreiner and Coetzee. The latter's interest in entomology is evident in each novel. Magda, like the author, is a lover of nature and insect life especially.

8This interest in microscopic life (we remember the insects in the Magistrate's cell in Waiting for the Barbarians), works in the context of a micro- and macrocosmic spatialisation operating in In the Heart of the Country. Writing of Schreiner's farm, but he could well be describing Magda's farm, Coetzee argues in his essay "Farm Novel and the Plaasroman", "Somewhere intermediate between the infinitesimal and the infinite, the farm tries to assert its own measure of time and space by which to carry on its self-absorbed existence."8 Magda, sensitive to the expanses of sky and desert which surround her, observing the minute insect life of the desert floor, tries to find a meaningful space in between these two extremes. This is achieved by identification with insects, "myself [...] a beetle" (p. 18) "I can shrivel to the size of an ant" (p. 50), that is, a shrinking of human space, or else by a cosmic expansion to enclose all space : "there is infinite space around me [...] What is there for me but dreary expansion to the limits of the universe ?" (p. 74) Magda, in an attempt to assign meaning to her life on a sheep farm, among hundreds of others, sees her farm, the desert, indeed the whole world in an ecstasy of communion : "I am the reluctant polestar about which this phenomenal universe spins" (p. 116) she writes. Such an androcentric, or gynocentric fantasy betrays an underlying alienation. The insects are to her as she is to the universe, just a speck in time and space. How to escape the feeling of pettiness in vastness, how to accede to power (expansion) in a phallogocentric world, how to assert identity as a woman – as a hole – are some of the questions which trouble Magda.


9There is in In the Heart of the Country, a conceptualisation, sometimes interesting, at other times belaboured, of feminine space. Coetzee has chosen a feminine subject of enunciation. In the Heart of the Country is a first-person narration, and the first person, Magda, is the unheard feminine, kept silent by patriarchy. In giving the place, or space, of enunciation to a feminine voice, the author is attempting to subvert the "masculine" phallocentric discourse of Afrikaner oppression. His "dark continent" is not only Africa, but it is also woman. Coetzee succeeds, in In the Heart of the Country, in making loquacious, in bringing to light, in giving a language to two countries : Africa and woman.

10One of the central problematics of In the Heart of the Country that Coetzee tries to analyse is how to locate the means by which the female speaking subject has been excluded from philosophy, discourse and culture, and to work out the conditions for her accession to speech and social existence. This is made all the more difficult since Magda, the mediator of an alternative discourse (or is this simply Coetzee, the authorial voice, as opposed to the narrative voice ?), frequently uses phallocentric modes of thinking about women. As in the case of Waiting for the Barbarians, both narrator and author in In the Heart of the Country, adhere to what has been called the metaphysics of absence. Inherited from German nineteenth and twentieth century philosophy, developed and theorised about by French post-structuralists, the so-called metaphysics of absence holds a particular fascination for Coetzee, as is shown by his critical writings. When Magda declares on page 2 of the novel : "I was absent. I was not missed. My father pays no attention to my absence. To my father I have been an absence all my life [...] I have been a zero, null, a vacuum" (p. 2), the author is clearly denouncing here the Afrikaner phallocentric pattern of thought whereby man is presence and woman absence, or in other words, man is space filled (fulfilled ?) and woman is unfilled space : a vacuum, a void, a blank, a hole. However, unlike Waiting for the Barbarians, where the Magistrate sees the barbarian girl as incomplete and a blank, in In the Heart of the Country, it is Magda herself who repeatedly echoes the phallocratic discourse about woman. She overtly ascribes to, supports and reinforces such a discourse : "I am incomplete." (p. 9) She tells the black servant, Anna : "Do you know what I feel like, Anna ? Like a great emptiness, an emptiness filled with a great absence, an absence which is a desire to be filled, to be fulfilled." (p. 114) The ambiguity of Magda's discourse is also revealed in the two fantasised acts of parricide. In order to eliminate the Father, Magda takes up an axe, called "my dramatic tomahawk" (p. 11) and later a shotgun. It is as if she opposes the Phallus, first by means of a castration (with the axe), and when this proves unsuccessful or dissatisfying, she opposes the Phallus with phallus. Magda's phallophoric side and her parroting of the patriarchal logos reinstates her into a logic where the Phallus is still the transcendental signifier. What are we to make, then, of Magda's self-avowed identification with a void, with emptiness ?

11The most common image used by Coetzee to give this idea of unfilled space is the hole. There is a purple passage on page 41 in which Magda/Coetzee first develops this repeated image :

myself as a sheath, as a matrix, as protectrix of a vacant inner space. I move through the world [...] as a hole, a hole with a body draped around it… I am a hole crying to be whole… in my centre a hollow, a space… there is a hole between my legs that has never beenfdled, leading to another hole never filled either. If I am an O,...it must be because I am a woman, (p. 41)9

12One wonders if the critics have pointed out the grotesque, abnegating, male fantasy which lies behind the concept of woman as hole. At the end of the passage on page 41, Coetzee uses the sign O to signify the idea he is expressing. This ambiguous signifier can be read as a cipher, a mathematical quantity (zero, nought, nothing), or as a pictogram for a circular object. In the context Magda controls these signifieds to include the feminine sex and the womb. Magda defines herself, gives herself ontological identity. She is nothing in terms of a phallogocentric discourse, that is she is a lack a being, abject (to use Kristeva's word), she is suffering from what Irigaray would call dereliction, that is a symbolic homelessness and imprisonment. This is perhaps why Coetzee makes Magda mad. Even madness is inscribed in her name : Magda contains the word mad and ga – half way towards gaga. At the same time, she reduces her humanity to one specific, restrictive domain – her sexuality. This yoking together of two disparate ideas (woman = nothing, woman = a hole) deserves closer attention.

13First, we notice an isotopic chain of images based on the sign O in the novel. Linking up with the idea of micro- and macrocosmic shrinking and expansion of space, we can identify an expanding O which extends from Magda's sex, to her womb, to her body, to the house, to the desert, to the country (Africa). This kaleidoscope of images gives the idea of Magda's captivity, her dereliction, her sense of being imprisoned in a masculine-dominated and directed logic. She is also a slave to her feminine sexuality : her function is to produce children, to serve her father in the house. We can notice a hiatus at this point in the chain. Rejecting the oppression of male domination (her father's orders and Hendrik's rape), Magda seeks liberation into the outside world (the desert, the country), that is, in a more expansive and liberating space.

14To return to the first four images : Magda's sex, womb, body and house. Given the containing nature of all these spaces, that is, their function "to capture, to enclose, to hold" (p. 114) presence, to use Magda's words, – they are all destined to contain a presence – alienation, negation and unfulfilment are seen in the novel to result from a denial of presence (essence or substance). Magda's main desire in In the Heart of the Country is to claim right as an ontological subject, to transcend nothingness, and she sees this possible through filling the hole, that is substituting absence with presence. Her words to Anna : "I feel like [...] an absence which is a desire to be filled" (p. 114) shows this idea. Magda's search for identity, for presence, leads her to fill holes and thus to achieve a copula.

15Magda's isolation, alienation and loneliness is evident from the beginning of the novel. She unsuccessfully attempts to connect with, to form a social contact with, to achieve a copula with : her father, her dead mother, the black servants, fellow women and more generally the outside world. Fantasised murder of the father does not seem to be a very good start. But perhaps we should distinguish between the Father and the personal father. Magda longs for an intimate, loving contact with her father. A contact constantly denied due to the patriarch's subjugation of women to servile status. But what are we to make of Magda's obsessive attempts to bury her father's body in a grave, that is, in a hole in the country, to fill up an emptiness with her father ? Part of the grotesque description of the burial scene refers to Magda's "burial" of her own body in the hole destined for her father. She gets into the hole, and in so doing, gains some comfort : "I am wholly inside" (p. 89) she writes. In other words, she feels whole in this hole. She wishes to fill up this hole – the absence of the father, the absence of normal filial relations with a father, and this action, or rather the writing about this action grants temporary fulfilment.

16When we turn to analyse Magda's relations with the black servant, Hendrik, we see, in a likewise grotesque manner, the impossibility of sexual fulfilment : "the hole between my legs that has never been filled" (p. 41) is filled during the rape scene and the consequent sexual encounters between Hendrik and Magda, but filling here does not bring fulfilment. When Magda writes : "I know that nothing will fill me" (p. 114), she reveals both her desire to connect sexually with the other, and the impossibility for her of achieving satisfaction. Nothing can remind us of a similar word, noting, a play on words used by Shakespeare, especially in Much Ado About Nothing, which is also Much Ado About Noting, that is, pricking, copulation. But so is In the Heart of the Country much ado about country matters. Here in the heart of the country Magda is raped by Hendrik, Magda's father sleeps with Hendrik's wife, and Hendrik continues to seek sexual assuagement with his rape-victim who perversely begins to enjoy the humiliation. Magda wishes to be filled with Hendrik's seed, but in her heart she knows that this noting will bring nothing. After having let Hendrik into her house (the black servant is allowed to live with his wife in Magda's farmhouse after the "death" of the father), Magda lets him into her body. This attempt at eliminating the master-slave relationship utterly fails. For some degree of satisfaction we have to look at Magda's use of language to appropriate space.


17According to Luce Irigaray, the "female" imaginary is an attempt to create a space in which women can accede to subjectivity. A "masculine" imaginary is, Irigaray suggests, one based on identity, logic, rationality and philosophy. Coetzee keeps such a masculine imaginary away from Magda in In the Heart of the Country. "What do I know about philosophy ?" (p. 18) asks Magda. At the end of the novel in section 230 we have in a similar vein : "I am not a philosopher. Women are not philosophers, and I am a woman." (p. 119) Magda does seem to be driven by irrational impulses : parricide, masochism, lying in a grave, inventing step-mothers. Cold logic, linearity and clarity are not the distinguishing features of her récit. Coetzee avoids dividing the novel into sequential chapters. Instead we have 266 narrative sections of varying length which more or less hang together. This multiplicity of units means that it is easier from a narratological point of view to repeat the same diegetic material (for example the murder of the father, Magda's rape), and thus achieve an impression of circularity. Long, winding, flowing sentences, not uncommon in the narrative, reinforce this "feminine" idea of curves and circularity. It is probable that Coetzee is trying to give us an impression of a "feminine" textual body whilst allying this to a feminine imaginary. The gaps between the 266 sections can of course be seen as textual holes inviting the reader to colonise space, to bridge these holes, to insert meaning and continuity. The reader finds himself in a similar position to Magda : how to "fill in" an emptiness ?

18If there is nothing at the heart of the country (Magda finds herself in the middle of nowhere – she is lost, without significance in a male master dialectic which treats her as object), there is something in the art of the country. Magda's quest to find identity, subjectivity, to transcend the self, her wish to bridge the master-slave, subject-object dialectic, is partly achieved through language. Language, the creative process, the constructing of narrative and the using of a feminine imaginary give back to the female subject, the female voice a control, a mastery, a sense of identity taken away by the patriarchal logos. This is made clear at the beginning of the novel : "I create myself in the words that create me." (p. 8) At the end of the novel Magda has a dreamlike vision from the gods. Voices speak to her in Spanish from the sky quoting Nietzsche and Hegel. She replies by composing two poems in mock-Spanish. The first speaks of her dream of freedom, love without terror, days without furor and nights of love. That this is Coetzee's dream for South Africa need not be emphasised. The second poem could be translated as follows : "You offer me a desert/ elementary choices/ master or slave/ woman or daughter/ I have always desired/ the medium between". The creative process, the making of art in the heart of the country allows Magda to fill up space, to bridge the gap between master and oppressed, between white and black, between male and female. This allows Magda to claim more than once : "I am I."


1  J.M. Coetzee, White Writing, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1988, p.81.

2  J.M. Coetzee, In the Heart of the Country, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1982

3  White Writing, op. cit., p.4.

4  Ibid., p.83

5  Ibid. p.5.

6  Ibid. p.29.

7  Ibid. p.7.

8  Ibid., p.64.

9  Other examples appear on pages 42, 86, 89, 93, 108, 109, 114.

Pour citer ce document

Par David COAD, «Where nothing is : in the heart of the country», Cahiers FoReLLIS - Formes et Représentations en Linguistique, Littérature et dans les arts de l'Image et de la Scène [En ligne], Archives (1993-2001), J. M. Coetzee, mis à jour le : 28/05/2013, URL : https://cahiersforell.edel.univ-poitiers.fr:443/cahiersforell/index.php?id=122.