ABSTRACT – J. M. COETZEE: SLOW MAN. London: Secker and Warburg, 2005
J. M. Coetzee, the 2003 Nobel prize winner, is a writer of enormous merit and a thinker challenging the society he lives in. Sparse in his own public appearances, he generates public discussion and heated argument through his work. In this book, his main character seems to be doing exactly the same. From his flat in Adelaide, Paul Rayment, a sixty year-old ex-photographer with a European past and sense of restlessness, animates a number of people’s actions, who feel strongly about his life and the way he acts or fails to act.
Losing his leg as a result of a cycling accident, Paul settles down to nurse his misery in his gloomy flat. Not fond of artificial, mechanical, or generally speaking, new things, he refuses a prosthesis, and acquires nursing help instead – a sort of human prosthesis. Naturally, in this state of helplessness, he falls in love with his nurse Marijana Jokic, a competent Croatian-Australian, whom he idealises. In a reversal of sorts, he wants to love her, and look after her, and her family, some of who – little Lubja and teenage Drago – she brings to work. When Paul confesses his love to Marijana, in the same breath as he offers to pay the fees to the expensive college Drago aspires to, Marijana walks out.
At this point of crisis, a new character appears: Elisabeth Costello, an Australian novelist, who claims to be writing a book about Paul and to feel frustrated by his inability to move the story forward. Paul’s, and the reader’s, sense of reality are undermined and an ongoing re-evaluation, and at times paranoia, emerge in their place. The reader, like Paul, withdraws to an observation post from where (s)he watches like a newcomer the inhabitants of another country. Paul’s attempts at distraction – a sexual encounter with a blind woman who Costello arranges; and a near-miss with an ex-girlfriend – fail to both disperse his disbelief at his situation and to expose the true identity of the ‘Costello woman.
Meanwhile, Drago tells Paul of a marital spat between his parents and eventually comes to stay with him for a while. Paul sets up a trust-fund for the college fees and also gets to save the third child of the family from being prosecuted for shoplifting. Paul’s relationship with the Jokics suffers another setback when his attention is drawn to Drago’s having digitally altered one of the pictures of his rare photographic collection. He ruminates, thinks and fusses as usual, but acts too: he travels to the Jokics home to confront the family. There he finds out that reality is often more benign than assumptions and prejudices, and returns to his flat, if not a changed man, at least with some new experiences under his belt.
Is this story about man in general, hiding out in his small corner and refusing to see the realities he needs to face? Is it about writing, and the depths the writer has to go to coax his characters? The relationship between the writer and the reader? Is it about love, and the painful realisation of the different shades and kinds there are? Or is it about a multitude of issues woven to a fabric whose pattern is in the eye of the beholder?
In a masterly stroke of genius and daring, Coetzee pulls off a marriage between abstract thinking and bodily humility – smells, warts and all; between writing and the effluents of the author’s, and reader’s, mind; and between limitless longing and the smallness, and slowness, of man.