Friday, June 27, 2008

Those Genteel Dogsbodies of Despotism

Dangerous things, novelists.

Nobel winner JM Coetzee revealed last week that his colleagues and associates at the University of Cape Town were also also his secret censors during the last days of apartheid.

Boyd Tonkin in today's Independent writes :
These teachers and writers might greet their quarry in the university corridors of Cape Town or (in one case) invite him for over for a barbecue: "I was rubbing shoulders daily with people who were secretly deciding whether or not I was going to be published in South Africa."
The irony is clear :
... these shrouded arbiters thought that they were on the author's side. Over and over, they reported that Coetzee's gnomic fiction would only appeal to a minority of "sophisticated", "discriminating" and (above all) "intellectual" readers. So the novels could safely be allowed to circulate – and would pass way over the heads of the vulnerable masses. "These people," Coetzee concluded, "regarded themselves as part of the literary community, and as unsung heroes of a kind." In their refined eyes, they "took on a dirty job in order to safeguard South African literature against the Philistines". Far better that they, with their ideals, should censor than some boorish bureaucrat.

In outlook and action, these stalwart anti-Communists reminded me of no one so much as the arts-loving Stalinist snitches of the old East Germany – as screened so memorably in The Lives of Others. At any cheese-and-wine do, c.1980, these genteel dogsbodies of despotism might have got along famously. As a parable of the self-delusions that permit good – or at least righteous – people to serve malign causes, Coetzee's analysis had all the lapidary power of his stories. For his censors (whom he imagined poring over his suspect prose, Mozart on the stereo, an Irish setter on the rug), the end more than justified the means. And the end was the preservation of a system that would have kept Mandela in jail until the day he died.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

But where is he now, after the country of his dreams had become real? Ran away to Australia/Adelaide like so many anti-apartheid South Africans because the country is now so badly run.

- Poppadumdum