Quote of the Day: From J. M. Coetzee’s YOUTH

Self finished reading Middlesex yesterday. Unexpectedly found herself breezing through second half of the book, like a galloping racehorse. Reason for this unseemly haste still a mystery.

Anyhoo, today self is reading Part 2 of J. M. Coetzee’s autobiography, his follow-up to Boyhood, Youth.

On p. 16 (Quite a feat to get here, since today self also had to: (1) read much of the next book she’s reviewing for SF Chronicle Book Review (2) grade tons of student papers (3) read and correct more student papers for three hours at NDNU Writing Center; and (4) watch Michael Clayton!), there’s a description of an encounter Coetzee and a friend have with a wandering milkman. This is South Africa, pre-“truth & reconciliation”. Coetzee and a friend named Paul have missed the last train to their destination, so have decided, on impulse, to walk the 12 miles thither. And, just past midnight, they encounter the milkman. Self thinks the encounter is Chekhovian in the extreme. Moreover, there’s the interesting fact that Coetzee refers to himself in the third person, as “he” (in much the same way that self refers to herself as “self”):

The milkman is young and handsome and bursting with energy. Even the big white horse with the shaggy hooves does not seem to mind being up in the middle of the night.

He marvels. All the business he knew nothing about, being carried on while people sleep: streets being swept, milk being delivered on doorsteps! But one thing puzzles him. Why is the milk not stolen? Why are there not thieves who follow in the milkman’s footsteps and filch each bottle he sets down? In a land where property is crime and anything and everything can be stolen, what renders milk exempt? The fact that stealing it is too easy? Are there standards of conduct even among thieves? Or do thieves take pity on milkmen, who are for the most part young and black and powerless?

He would like to believe this last explanation. He would like to believe there is enough pity in the air for black people and their lot, enough of a desire to deal honourably with them, to make up for the cruelty of the laws. But he knows it is not so. Between black and white there is a gulf fixed. Deeper than pity, deeper than honourable dealings, deeper even than goodwill, lies an awareness on both sides that people like Paul and himself, with their pianos and violins, are here on this earth, the earth of South Africa, on the shakiest of pretexts. This very milkman, who a year ago must have been just a boy herding cattle in the deepest Transkei, must know it. In fact, from Africans in general, even from Coloured people, he feels a curious, amused tenderness emanating: a sense that he must be a simpleton, in need of protection, if he imagines he can get by on the basis of straight looks and and honourable dealings when the ground beneath his feet is soaked with blood and the vast backward depth of history rings with shouts of anger.

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