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Nobel Prize Winners

October 2, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: South African writer John Maxwell Coetzee has been a prominent figure in world literature for nearly three decades. In his eight novels such as “The Life and Times of Michael K” and “Disgrace,” the Nobel committee said, “Coetzee’s interest is directed mainly at situations where the distinction between right and wrong, while crystal clear, can be seen to serve no end; it is in exploring weakness and defeat that Coetzee captures the divine spark of man.” Coetzee himself rarely if ever grants interviews or attends award ceremonies.

In a statement today, he said the prize “came as a complete surprise. I was not even aware that the announcement was pending.” Joining us now is a fellow writer and friend of Coetzee; Ariel Dorfman is a novelist, playwright and professor of literature at Duke University. Welcome to you. Ariel Dorfman, for those who know little or nothing about Coetzee, what is the essential quality that stands out in his writing?

ARIEL DORFMAN: I think that he strips bare the human contemporary condition. He explores the very bleak landscape of the human soul in our times and does so with, I would say, radiance, luminosity, tenderness. But I would say if you had to speak about one thing that John does basically well is he doesn’t lie. He doesn’t lie about himself. He doesn’t lie about the human condition. He doesn’t lie about his characters. He goes to the depth of what we are as human beings: Men, women, beggars, princes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now this is a man who lived through the trauma and drama of recent history in South Africa. How much did that history affect his writing?

ARIEL DORFMAN: I think it’s very central to his writing. I mean, his great models are Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Beckett, very existential writers but he is very impressed and impressed by the situation of apartheid and injustice that he sees in his land and all the conflicts. I mean the problems of death-and-life issues, right and wrong, make him constantly look at this landscape around him and see people in the most difficult situations, show them with all their flaws and yet rising in some sense to find their humanity in the midst of all of this.

Of course, you know, he takes a man with a hair lip, presumably a black man, and in the life and times of Michael Kay, and he just follows him to the last little space on earth that he can find, saying all the maps have been taken from him. He has no place to go. He finds in this man who has been experimented upon, he finds a dignity just in the little tiny thing of putting a little seed into the ground. This happens in the age of iron which is about a woman who has got cancer who discovers herself. It happens in “Disgrace,” which just won the Booker prize. It happens in relation to animals. He’s an animal rights activist in some sense. In his latest novel which is about to come out called “Elizabeth Costello.” He cares about the marginal, those who are outside. I think this has come to him especially because he has lived in a place where humanity was defined as just one small group of people and then most of the blacks and, you know, the Africans who were in Africa were excluded from that. I think that that has very, very sharply marked his existence.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, he is also known as a real craftsman, a real writer’s writer.

ARIEL DORFMAN: Oh, you know, if you just read four or five of his sentences, they’re so lucid, so well written, and the way in which he can create in one situation… you know, there’s a slight situation, there’s grace. There’s an older professor who basically has a lust for a very young woman, you know? And the way in which he describes the sexual relation between them is so absolutely masterful I guess, you know?

Every one of his sentences is extraordinarily constructed. It creates a whole world there. It’s this relationship of how sophisticated he is. Yet at the same time these are very simple or deceptively simple stories that he’s telling. He goes deeper and deeper. He just takes away every layer and shows us the different, you know, I would say the different forms of the human soul.

JEFFREY BROWN: I know that you use his books, you teach in your literature courses. Does his work connect with younger people, with your students?

ARIEL DORFMAN: Very much so. I’ve taught two of his books, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” which is one of his first novels and then “The Life and Times of Michael Kay.” What this does with students is it forces them to look at a situation where the problems of ethics are always there but the solutions are always difficult. What I love about Coetzee is that he will take a situation that is very difficult and he won’t make it easier.

He’ll make it more arduous, more difficult, more impossible to resolve. In that lack of resolution and yet in the redemption that the human spirit finds trying to grapple with these things, he keeps on going deeper and deeper. The students really like that because they recognize there an authentic, original voice, a voice they’ve never heard before. He’s really one of the most original… I think one of the most original and most modest writers. You know, when he says that, that he did not expect this, he is reserved, modest, very, very… he’s just not willing, you know, to appear publicly. He believes in his own private person.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us more about the man. As we said he’s preserved. He rarely speaks out in interviews doesn’t go to these special events for the awards that he frequently gets. What is he like?

ARIEL DORFMAN: Well, you know, he’s very inquisitive and extremely compassionate. Let me tell just one little story about this. I was having dinner with him in South Africa a few years back before he had left South Africa. One… our hostess who was the ambassador’s wife, the ambassador of Chile’s wife who had invited him so we could get together — said to him, “you are so courageous to be writing the way you do.” He looked at her and I knew something was going to happen because he rarely speaks up.

He said, “you know what I do takes no courage at all? You know what takes courage? What takes courage is to get up in the morning at 4:00 in the morning and go on a bus and go twenty or thirty miles on a packed bus and clean out the bed pans of people at hospitals and then go back and cook food for the people you love. He said it with such compassion, such a sense, you know, here was this man who himself of course is not cleaned out bed pans, you know, and yet in some sense in his latest novel he says it,” we are able through the compassionate imagining, we are able to understand the other.” Literature really does that. It’s that leap into the other’s mind and heart. He goes deeper and deeper into that. I could see there that flicker.

You know, a few years back we had another dinner in England. I told him about a problem that I was having. He was very helpful. He knows how to listen. He’s very, very quiet. One could imagine it. Very rarely do you find somebody who from his novels you would expect the man to be like that. And yet it is that solitude, that stillness, that quiet from which he watches the human condition that I think he writes. And that I mean the wonderful thing is that so many people… today they called me from another radio television show and they asked me, well, what do you think? Isn’t this great for him? I said it’s not great for him.

He’s not going to change at all. It’s great for us. It’s great for the world. Many more people are going to read him than that’s going to be an extraordinary journey which I’ve been talk taking for many years and I know I’m going to be joined by many other people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ariel Dorfman thank you for that very fascinating literacy lesson.

ARIEL DORFMAN: Well thank you so much. I wouldn’t come for anybody else, well I probably would. For him I have a particularly admiration and devotion. He’s a great man, great novelist.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thank you very much.

ARIEL DORFMAN: Thank you.