Michael K and the resistance of silence

Par Myrtle Hooper
Publication en ligne le 28 mai 2013

Texte intégral

You can't trust a white man. You work for him all your life and tomorrow he sacks you like a new boy. Makgato should have sent them all into the sea. There is no sense in my cousin saying they will one day treat us like brothers. They suck your blood and when it is finished they say "voetsak"… (The Marabi Dance 1973 : 49).

The old woman who had been telling the others of the Ndebele witchcraft pushed her bundle of washing in first. She jammed the door shut, and seated herself nearest the door, panting loudly.

“Siss, white men have no respect for women,” she murmured to herself, in admonishment of the white train driver who had moved the train before all were seated. She took from her blouse a small tin of snuff wrapped in a dirty handkerchief and applied it to her nostrils with satisfaction, sneezed and thanked her grandfathers for having held the white guard against his evil intent. She blew her nose and splashed mucus from her bare hand on to the floor and wiped it with a big bare foot (The Marabi Dance 1973 : 101).

In less than five minutes the train stopped again, at Mlamkuzi station, then it arrived at Orlando. There was a scramble and pushing to get out. “Joo, my washing is in the train !” A washerwoman cried for the white people's washing she had left in the train. She had not forgotten it. She had pushed it as far as the door, alighted and turned to take the bundle out, but before she could reach it the train had pulled off (The Marabi Dance 1973 : 114).

1Citing excerpts from a 1973 novel by the black South African writer, Modikwe Dikobe, might seem a rather indirect beginning to an essay on J.M. Coetzee. My rationale for doing so is to assemble from observations about these excerpts a context – in my view a crucial context – for a discussion of Coetzee in South Africa in the 1990s.

2Dikobe's novel, The Marabi Dance, has been described as the first working-class novel by a black South African writer. Set in the period before World War 2 the novel invokes the metaphor of marabi (township) dance to narrate the lives of people in the slums of Doornfontein, and more broadly the black suburbs of greater Johannesburg. Conditions are both impoverished and degraded : "The Molefe Yard, where Martha lived, was also home to more than twenty other people. It served a row of five rooms, each about fourteen by twelve feet in size. When it rained, the yard was as muddy as a cattle kraal, and the smell of beer, thrown out by the police on their raids, combining with the stench of the lavatories, was nauseating" (1973 : 1). The triumph of the novel (and this is no liberal humanist dream of reconciliation) is the way in which the central character, Mabongo's daughter Martha, maintains self-respect against all the odds and achieves a dignity that is impervious to the onerous system which in many respects governs her life. It is a similar self-respect that informs the responses cited above to the banal insensitivities that have long characterised racial interaction in our country. The old woman who washes white people's clothing for a living is subjected to the white train driver's lack of respect for the commuters on his train. Her murmured reaction is echoed in the gesture of snuff-taking and the invocation of ancestral authority against him. More importantly, narrative confirmation of the grounds for her disgust is clearly forthcoming in the misfortune suffered shortly after by another washerwoman who loses her bundle, and quite possibly her job, when the train moves off too quickly. Similarly, although Mabongo's thoughts are not vocalised, they are accorded explicit narrative recognition in the direct report of his words. Given the time of its composition (the 60s and early 70s) and of its setting (the 30s), Dikobe's novel is by no means an ideological tract : indeed it is only on rereading it that one notices how frequently the novel records the mental and conversational resistance of black people to white power within the "small life- worlds" (Luckmann 1975) of their interaction.

3Although black writing in our country has tended to favour the genres of poetry and the short story rather than that of the novel, this context of verbal resistance is not unique to Dikobe. Even the titles of some important works draw attention to the possibilities of speaking back to white dominance, though these are sometimes couched in negative terms : Call Me Not a Man (Matshoba 1979), To Kill a Man's Pride (Hodge 1984), Amandla ("power" ; Tlali 1981), Fools and Other Stories (Ndebele 1983). It is because Dikobe's work might be classed as moderate, compared to some of the more radical writings, that I have cited examples from him. The earliest black South African novelist, Sol Plaatje is a similar case in point, since both his novel Mhudi (1930) and his non-fictional Native Life in South Africa (1916) offer analyses of colonial power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that are both penetrating and revealing.

4It is not my intention here to do more than indicate the existence of a context of black writing in South Africa, which dates back, in the case of poetry and journalism, to the nineteenth century. The point of stressing this context before moving on to a discussion of Coetzee has to do specifically with questions of voice and speech and silence, and the range of possibilities within which a reading of Coetzee's work should, in my view, take place. In The Empire Writes Back, the critics Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin make a large claim of some relevance here : "It is this concept of silence, not any specific cultural concept of meaning, which is the active characteristic linking all postcolonial texts" (1989 : 187). The concept of silence is one which has received some recognition amongst South African critics of Coetzee's work, principally after the publication of Foe (1986) which so obviously takes up the question of silence as Ashcroft, Griffiths & Tiffin understand it :

Because the control of the means of communication is so pronounced in South Africa, it provides one of the clearest and most extreme examples of how the political condition of colonized people is bound up with language. This is not to say that there is no speech possible within that double (literal and metaphorical) 'silencing', but that such 'speech' can only demonstrate that neither the language nor the means of communication have been fully appropriated (1989 : 84).

5I have my own reservations about what "such'speech" can and cannot "demonstrate", as might be evident already from my references to Dikobe, and as will be explicated during the course of this essay. At present, I wish to take up the question of appropriation as it is addressed in a recent article on Coetzee's Life and Times of Michael K (1983) and Gordimer's July's People (1981) by the linguistic critic, Michael Toolan. Focusing on “The Significations of Representing Dialect in Writing”, Toolan begins by citing Coetzee's own analysis of the early narratives of exploration and travel as an attempt to appropriate imaginatively a "corner of Africa for the white man" (Toolan 1992 : 30). Then, "the aura that still surrounds Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country (1948) has made this an anxiously avoided model", given the "archaism and anachronism" that is attributed to the Zulu mind by the "simple or simplified language" of its Zulu characters. The question then facing contemporary white South African writers is whether the rendering of black speech in English, if they attempted it, would likewise be "uneasy appropriation". Toolan sets out the alternative choice as follows :

One way to not appropriate is not to render a character's voice directly at all. That is to say, given the convention that fictional direct speech is a faithful and essentially unmodulated record of a character's actual speaking, the avoidance of direct-speech rendering is a refusal of the appropriation or mastery of that character's voice (1992 : 30).

6It might be emphasised here that Toolan is reading silence from the perspective of narrative, and that this perspective is by no means unproblematic, as I will go on to show. His recognition of this "problematic strategy of silence or avoidance" as characteristic of contemporary white South African writing, however, is one with which I have no disagreement. The characteristic is amply clear in works ranging from Plomer's Turbott Wolfe (1926) and Smith's The Beadle (1926), through Rooke's Mittee (1951), Jacobson's A Dance in the Sun (1956), and Paton's Too Late the Phalarope (1955), to Conyngham's The Arrowing of the Cane (1986) and du Plessis's Longlive ! (1989), besides the writings of Gordimer and Coetzee on which Toolan centres.

7The focus of my disagreement is the nature of this silence, or, more precisely, the terms in which we are to understand it. Rather than reading the silence of black characters in white South African writing, as Toolan does, as "an avoidance" or "a refusal", or, as others have, as an omission, a suppression or an oversight, I will propose positive terms in which such silence can be understood. Although it is in Coetzee's 1986 novel Foe that silence is most explicitly problematised, and perhaps for this reason has received most attention within local critical circles (a seminal paper on the topic, for example, was Williams's 1988 "Foe : A Story of Silence"), I wish, in this article, to consider the earlier Life and Times of Michael K ; partly in order to take up Toolan's comments, and partly because the earlier novel is less permeated by metafictional self-consciousness than the later work (see Marais 1989a) and so is more readily comparable with the 'black writing' discussed above.

8In the course of his article, Toolan makes an approach to recognising the possibility of reading silence in positive terms when he cites crucial passages from the novel :

'Tell us about your friends who come in the middle of the night and burn down farms and kill women and children,' said Noel. That's what I want to hear.'

“Tell us about your father,” I said. “You talk a lot about your mother but you never mention your father. What became of your father ?”

He closed his mouth obstinately, the mouth that would never wholly shut, and glowered back…

There was a silence so dense that I heard it as a ringing in my ears, a silence of the kind one experiences in mine shafts, cellars, bomb shelters, airless places.

“We brought you here to talk, Michaels,” I said… “You've got a story to tell and we want to hear it. Start anywhere… Tell us what we want to know, then we will leave you alone.”

I paused ; he stared stonily back. “Talk, Michaels”, I resumed. “You see how easy it is to talk. Listen to me, listen how easily I fill this room with words… Give yourself some substance, man, otherwise you are going to slide through life absolutely unnoticed.” (Coetzee 1983 : 191-192).

9The critical use to which Toolan puts these excerpts is to provide a basis for a formulation which he terms "something approximating the right to silence". Although, he concedes, this principle still has only a tenuous hold even in Western democracies, it can be characterised as follows :

In a context in which you believe your words may be taken down and given in narrative evidence in ways such that your position, story, or voice is misrepresented, then you have the right to remain silent (1992 : 42).

10It is both regrettable that Toolan fails to take this insight further, and puzzling, since, in an earlier study of narrative, he has pointed out that "To narrate is to make a bid for a kind of power" (1988 : 3, my emphasis). Indeed the insight is one he appears to forget when he goes on to label Michael's silence as a 'strategy of avoidance' by Coetzee, and later as an 'affliction' (1992 : 44) upon the writer. As I shall attempt to demonstrate, forgetting this insight leads to a dangerous conflation of narrative levels, to a leap from diegetic response to critical choice which positions Toolan as a metropolitan critic with little or no contact with the narrative context I sought above to specify : a context which I believe is crucial to an informed and authentic reading of Coetzee.

11This conflation might become more visible if we posit and attempt to address three simple questions. In the first place, if Michael were to speak, what speech would we be likely to hear from him ? We might be guided by the replies he has, before this point, given. Two comments he makes about himself are :

I am not in the war' (1983 : 189),


I am not clever with words' (1983 : 190).

13The self-awareness that informs these comments is significant in setting up an alternative and oppositional domain of non- involvement in the social conflicts that invade the lives of the officials who are interrogating him, and of non-cooperation with their world of articulation. The alternative nature of this domain is apparent in the narrator's description of him, much later, as a "genuine little man of earth" (1983 : 220), and in the allegiances Michael himself reveals when he is questioned about his garden :

'This garden you had,' said Noel : 'what did you grow there ?'
“It was a vegetable garden.”
“Who were these vegetables for ? Who did you give them to ?”
'They weren't mine. They came from the earth.”
“I asked, who did you give them to ?”
“The soldiers took them.”
“Did you mind it that the soldiers took your vegetables.”
“He shrugged. 'What grows is for all of us. We are all the children of the earth.” (1983 : 190)

14The oppositional nature of this domain is apparent in the responses of the officials to his two comments about himself : in the first instance, "Of course you are in the war, man" (1983 : 189), and, in the second, "We don't want you to be clever with words or stupid with words, man, we just want to tell us the truth" (1983 : 190). It is apparent from these contradictions that Michael is not free to speak ; it should also be apparent that, at this point at least, it is other characters who constrain him, not his writer.

15The second question we might consider, then, is What is the relation between the first-person narrator in Section II and Michael's ability and freedom to articulate ? The relation seems to me rather more complex than Toolan allows. On the one hand, in the presence of Noel, who as Major has more power over the situation than he does, the narrator attempts to force Michael to speak :

'We brought you here to talk, Michaels,' I said. 'We give you a nice bed and lots of food, you can lie in comfort all day and watch the birds fly past in the sky, but we expect something in return. It is time to deliver, my friend. You've got a story to tell and we want to hear it…' (1983 : 191-192).

16And clearly it is the narrator's values which inform the concatenation of "words" and "talking" and "substance" in his injunction to Michael to "tell" his "story" (1983 : 192). On the other hand, it is his intervention with Noel after they leave the room which condones and facilitates Michael's right to silence, which protects the "world all his own" (1983 : 194) which Michael inhabits. He reflects :

So, Michaels, the long and the short of it is that by my eloquence I saved you. We will make up a story to satisfy the police, and instead of travelling back to Prince Albert handcuffed in the back of a van in a pool of urine you can lie in clean sheets listening to the cooing of the doves in the trees, dozing, thinking your own thoughts. I hope you will be grateful one day (1983 : 194-5).

17Of course, it is part of the narrative contract of the novel that we as readers should be given substantial access to Michael's "own thoughts" ; but such access is restricted in Section II both by his interaction with white people and by the speculative quest of his white narrator. The point seems to me significant for an understanding of Michael's "silence". If he does not, here, "tell" his "story" it is quite likely because those who would hear it if he did so are the wrong people for him to tell it do. Recalling, briefly, the old washerwoman in Dikobe's novel with whose condemnation of whites I began this article we might more readily recognise the influence of social context on what is spoken. She was free to speak out against the train driver because those around her undoubtedly agreed with her. Michael, by contrast, is alone in his resistance to those who would have him speak.

18The third question that needs consideration is this one : Whose is the silence ? Does it belong to Michael or is it imposed on him ? My own answer might already be apparent, yet it seems to me worth exploring this question at some length because it is one which is begged in Toolan's analysis.

19A starting point for this exploration is available nonetheless in Toolan's specification of his own critical position. Within the sphere of linguistics, he tells us, there are those who question whether "fictional representations [can] be properly a part of dialect study… if fiction is 'heterocosmic', or a pleasure ground, or 'non-serious discourse'", who question, in effect, whether "actual dialogue" is relevant to "literary fiction". To these reservations Toolan responds by insisting on the "impossibility of 'a faithful record of actual speech'… since even a linguistic transcription of speech is itself a representation, a partial rather than an essential record, an 'illuminating version' orientated to some concerns rather than others". Literature, then, is metonymically rather than metaphorically related to "the rest of life and discourse", and allows for the invocation of "verisimilitude at some level" (1992 : 31). Of course Toolan's insistence on the validity of dialect study for literature is associated with a quite specific analysis of "direct speech in novels" (1983 : 33), or at least in two novels by Coetzee and Gordimer, and so his focus is rather different to my own concern with silence. Yet, like Toolan, I wish to insist on the relation between literature and "the rest of life and discourse", and so bring to bear on the analysis of silence in literature insights from 'real-life' studies of "acts of silence" and "silence behaviour".

20These two concepts were specified first by an ethnographer working amongst the Western Apaches in North America. In establishing a context for his study, Basso notes that "traditionally, ethnographers and linguists have paid little attention to cultural interpretations given to silence nor, equally important, the types of social contexts in which it regularly occurs" (1972 : 67). The specific instances of "silence behaviour" which he identifies amongst his subjects are less important for my purposes than his generalisation that, "although the form of silence is always the same, the function of a specific act of silence – that is, its interpretation by and effect upon other people – will vary according to the social context in which it occurs", and hence his conclusion that, "for a stranger entering an alien society, a knowledge of when not to speak may be as basic to the production of culturally acceptable behavior as a knowledge of what to say" (1972 : 68). If we are to apply these observations to the novel at hand, we need the qualification at the outset that Michael's intention does not appear to be to produce "culturally acceptable behavior". Yet even this qualification reveals the difference between the "interpretations given to silence" by Toolan (and many other literary critics) and Basso's recognition of silence as a positive phenomenon.

21To allow that silence can be a positive phenomenon is to connect with Toolan's insight regarding a putative "right to silence", though it is an insight I wish to take considerably further than Toolan does. Like him I have insisted on the relation between literature and the "rest of life and discourse". Although I am not here able to rehearse the intricacies of an argument regarding the ontological and textual status of character which has been presented elsewhere (Hooper 1993), my contention is that to recognise that people can use silence deliberately is to open up at least the critical possibility that characters, too, can use silence for their own purposes. The implications of this possibility are considerable, not least in forcing us, as critics, to an awareness of choices we might otherwise be making unconsciously and automatically.

22Such choices can be demonstrated in Toolan's reading of the deployment of silence in Coetzee's novel. To identify these choices I wish to retrace Toolan's delineation of what he terms "uptake". He begins by insisting that "the reader may well be put firmly in the position of an outsider having to struggle to comprehend the conventions and standards of insiders, or those who appear, collectively, to be inside and constitute a culture, society, or style". One of the variables affecting the uptake specifically of dialect speech may be "the knowledge and presuppositions the reader has about the writer and the categorial 'placing' that may give rise to (e.g. categorising Coetzee as white (or not), male (or not), Afrikaans or Afrikaans-descended (or not), a 'fabulist' (or not), and so on". Then "one's assumptions about the race of the author, taken together with one's own racial affiliations and one's sense of racially based dialects, may lead one to react quite differently… to any dialect perceived in that author's fiction" (1992 : 33). The argument to this point seems incontestable : however it is Toolan's failure to recognise silence as equally affected by "uptake" that leads him into difficulties, and shown his reading of Coetzee, finally, to be that of an "outsider" who has failed to "comprehend the conventions and standards of insiders".

23This failure is first apparent whan he specifies "one of the most fundamental assumptions we make in reading direct speech is that… all the detail of a character's actual speech that is relevant to proper uptake of that character or of the novel's theme will, in fact, be represented" (1992 : 34). While this assumption might perhaps be acceptable in a naive reading of fiction, an analytic study of direct speech should surely be more conscious than this, and part of the consciousness that critics bring to bear on fiction ought to be a recognition of the possibility that silence is being deployed deliberately.

24More seriously, though is the application of this concept of "uptake" to Coetzee : "there are tendencies of uptake, in the reception of stories and novels by white South African writers, that the authors themselves can do little to curb. One of the most obvious of these is for various oppressed, exploited, dependent Others, in their novels, to be read as metaphorical representations of 'the black South African'" (1992 : 36). The fact that Toolan himself falls prey to this tendency of uptake (and I have done so too) should perhaps give up pause, particularly in light of the fact that he goes on to claim it is a "grim irony for writers such as Coetzee that their novels should be subjected to such racially biased stereotyping" (1992 : 37). Is it a "grim irony" ? Or is it a "tendency of uptake" of which Coetzee is perfectly aware and which he is thus able to exploit for narrative purposes ?

25The problem goes further. The reason why Coetzee's work is thus "subjected" is rooted in evidently inescapable social realities :

But in the attenuated 'giving voice' to Michael K and others in the novels under discussion, it seems that an antecedent societal appropriation is a thematic ground for presenting only the most limited kind of narratorial representation. We might generalise that in these cases and those of other subordinated or oppressed characters in Gordimer and Coetzee, the appropriation of these characters' true or full voices by the societies within which they are embedded renders it difficult or impossible, by the same token, for those voices to be fully represented or articulated in their respective fictional worlds (1992 : 41).

26Although the claim is not thus specified, we might be so kind as to read this 'impossibility of representation' as applying only to the work of Gordimer and Coetzee. And yet I have little inclination to be kind : less because Toolan has landed himself in an unenviable position of prescription than because his reading of Coetzee is by no means unique and because his reading of Coetzee is also a reading of South African society which is by no means unique. And both these readings depend upon a non-reading of the literary context delineated at the beginning of this article. Perhaps the least of Toolan's injustices is his claim that the non-representation of "the landscape of black urban vernacular" in Coetzee's work is compelled upon him, that "the broken speech of Michael K, the denial of speech to Friday, are Coetzee's afflictions too in this respect – and to imagine and represent otherwise might be dismissed as lapsing into a liberal humanist dream of reconciliation" (1992 : 44). The writer, in other words, cannot transcend, let alone challenge or resist, the social context in which he is located. The injustice to black South African writers who have demonstrated it is possible for voices like Michael K's "to be fully represented or articulated", and hence that their voices have not finally been appropriated "by the societies within which they are embedded" is an implicit one. The most serious injustice, however, is the simple and complete equation of South African society with apartheid. Although conclusive evaluations of the impact of apartheid will be some time in coming, it is not, in my view, out of the question to see its demise as inevitable, given the sociocultural pressures which have consistently undermined it, besides the active interventions of those who have challenged and resisted it. Following an elegant exposition by Pechey, who, unlike Toolan, has no difficulty adducing Bakhtinian arguments for an analysis of South African society, the word apartheid, like the system, contains within itself the elements of its own deconstruction, and it does so because it invokes the cross-culturality which it seeks to manage and to contain. Exemplifying the exclusion it signifies it thus undermines its own apparent "monologism" (Pechey 1989 : 64).

27The fundamental question, in relation to South African society, then, is not the one Toolan cites from Said : "How can one write the Other ?" (1992 : 37), but rather, How can one not ?'. Recognising this, we should see that the silence of Michael K in Coetzee's novel is not a non-representation of speech, but a representation of silence, and a representation of silence which is by no means inevitable. It is difficult to read Toolan's claim that Other voices are simply not heard" as escaping the most invidious critical arrogance – "heard", after all, by whom ? Perhaps the corrective needed from an "insider" is the reminder that although the system has consistently attempted to remove "the conditions for dialogue between black working-class South Africans and white middle-class ones" it never succeeded – that, however pernicious its consequences may have been, apartheid, like communism, did not work.

28Whose is the silence ? My exploration of the implications of this question has led to a confrontation with the critical choices Toolan, as a metropolitan critic of South African writing, is unconsciously making ; has led to an insistence that an informed and authentic reading of Coetzee demands an awareness of context which Toolan evidently does not possess. Useful as this debate has been I have no wish to end on a note of castigation or repudiation, because the issues, I believe, are greater than the need for correctives. Having attempted to show how questions of narrative implicate the critic in relations of power (see Marais 1989b), my argument, in essence, is for a fresh paradigm for interpretations of silence in fiction, for a new critical theory that can enable us to recognise the power and the legitimacy of the silence that is, on occasion, exercised by characters in resisting those who would narrate them. If such recognitions are not available to Toolan, this is perhaps because how we read silence in fiction is heavily (and often unconsciously) influenced by how we read silence in ordinary social interaction with other people. If I claim for myself a sensitivity to "acts of silence" and "silence behaviour" more intense than Toolan's it is one which stems both from conscious formulation and from exposure to cross-cultural contact on a daily basis over several years. It is, too, as an insider to the situation of which Coetzee writes that I assert the political significance of silence : as readers and critics of South African literature we need to recognise and to condone the human identity that is at times expressed in silence, because such expression has never been confined to literature. Those who have not voiced their suffering have nevertheless frequently endured it, and in doing so have, like Dikobe's Martha, like Coetzee's Michael K, achieved a dignity and a grandeur more imposing than the "Siss !", the "Voetsak" which might otherwise have expressed it.


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Par Myrtle Hooper, «Michael K and the resistance of silence», 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=140.