The Master of Petersburg. A novel by J. M. Coetzee. Viking $21.95. ISBN 0-670-85587-1.

The South African writer J. M. Coetzee is masterful at conveying how isolated and alienated people can become in hostile physical, political or mental environments. In stark, powerful strokes, he delineates their efforts to retain their dignity and their sense of shared humanity, their attempts to draw sustenance from the unlikeliest sources and, too often, their defeat from fatigue, starvation of various kinds and despair.

In an odd progression, Mr. Coetzee's latest novel, The Master of Petersburg, is a distorted image of his least bleak work, Waiting for the Barbarians. The earlier work is an extended version of Konstantinos Kavafis' poem of the same title, and both reach identical conclusions: Humans need to project their inner demons onto convenient scapegoats; the role falls to anyone who is sufficiently "Other". If barbarians didn't exist, we would have had to invent them. Or, as Pogo said, We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Set in an unidentified Northern empire, Waiting for the Barbarians derives its strength and color from its protagonist, a humane magistrate with a sense of proportion, who undergoes humiliation for his moderate views. He knows that the dreaded barbarians are being demonized by the status quo so that the latter can continue the endless cycle of corruption, manipulation and repression. By being a stoic, The Magistrate survives to witness transition to less brutal times. The implied connection to apartheid-era South Africa is clear; however, the setting of the story strongly suggests a Central Asian location, which would make The Magistrate Russian.

In The Master of Petersburg, the setting is unmistakably Russian but the protagonist no longer anonymous, buoyant or moderate. The problematic hero of the novel is Dostoyevsky himself. Entering late middle age, disillusioned, insolvent, prey to epilepsy, Dostoyevsky is drawn to Petersburg despite the threat of creditors and the secret police, to discover the truth behind the sudden death of the stepson to whom he was intensely yet ambiguously connected.

Like The Magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians, Dostoyevsky is a web of contradictory impulses but, unlike him, he is not reconciled to his shortcomings. He is still angry, afraid, needy. His incompatible yearnings are mirrored by -- or projected onto -- the people he meets during his search for meaningful information. All are true Dostroyevskian characters: his son's landlady Anna Sergeyevna, and her precocious daughter, both volatile and unpredictable, and both of whom Dostoyevsky uses for physical and mental comfort; the police commissar Maximov, with his uneasy mix of reason and coercion; the fierce anarchist Sergei Nechayev, an embodied alternative to both the dead stepson and Dostoyevsky's own turbulent youth.

The characters are powerful, but appear almost as facets of Dostoyevsky: the Anima, the Guide, the Superego, the Id. Although there is a strong flavor of place, it is almost as if the entire book forms and tumbles inside Dostoyevky's roiling thoughts. In the end, all the lived experiences are transmuted in a crucible, to emerge as writing: Dostoyevsky's first, then Mr. Coetzee's. In using everything, even his own very real feelings, to fuel his writing, Dostoyevsky resembles the tsarist regime that feeds on its young or a puppetmaster that discards his dolls after a performance.

Mr. Coetzee has explored tenuous or damaging parent-child relationships before, showing them as microcosms that reflect the tension between the powerless and the powerful in totalitarian societies. In The Life and Times of Michael K, the almost autistic central character finds himself in the position of Sophocles' Antigone: his duties towards his mother put him in conflict with the state, eventually leading him to passive resistance and death. In The Age of Iron, a white woman achieves political epiphany by becoming a surrogate parent first to a vagrant, then to the children of her black housekeeper. In The Master of Petersburg, however, the threads are never disentangled, there are no placations or reconciliations. When the narrative seems to be meandering towards dramatic resolution, Mr. Coetzee draws back from the potential fusion and retreats inside the protagonist's labyrinthine mind, where a different, much more tentative catharsis eventually occurs.

This is a brilliant book, a tour de force, but difficult and unrewarding to a casual reader. Its relentless melancholy and avoidance of neat endings makes it frustrating, though the rich texture more than compensates for the effort. To attempt to write from inside another writer, and do so successfuly, is an amazing feat. To convey the sometimes distasteful contradictions within a human mind is risky and bold -- and here it pays off: the story rings like a bell with authenticity.

In choosing to resolve the struggle with the Angel entirely within Dostoyevsky, Mr. Coetzee has for the first time denied engagement or resistance to a protagonist. In Dostoyevskian fashion, he has created a character closer to a holy fool like Michael K (or Alyosha), rather than a paladin or even a wiseman like The Magistrate. Silence that arises from resigned understanding is unquestionably the lot of the speechless, powerless majority of humanity, but not of the un/lucky articulate, passionate few who leave ripples in the river of time. And yet by lending his pen to Dostoyevsky, Mr. Coetzee has broken the silence he imposed on his own protagonist. He has spoken (indirectly but powerfully) of tectonic tremors in a society poised at the brink of cataclysmic change, has helped the rough, slouching beast of the next era to be born.

Copyright © 1998 Athena Andreadis

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