Book Review: Youth by J M Coetzee

Written by Arts, Book Reviews

J M Coetzee is notoriously metaphorical, and Youth is no different. Both Youth, and a novel of his which won the Booker Prize, Disgrace, are really talking about Apartheid in South Africa, but, somehow, Coetzee manages to stealthily talk around the truth.

His protagonists appear to be babbling and delusional fools, obsessing over every thought and running off on tangents about beautiful poetry. Both David Lurie and John, based upon John Maxwell Coetzee himself, are privileged academics who view themselves in their own narcissistic historical and literary narratives. Their imaginations move far away from the urgency of revolution, instead, Coetzee explores the political through the personal.

Youth’s protagonist leaves South Africa for reasons he only vaguely details: due to danger, or that there is no longer anything left there for him. It is only through meeting other migrants while living in London that he rejects his self-delusion about the reasons why. When they have fetched Ganapathy they may as well come and fetch him too.”
Ganapathy, a fellow migrant he meets while working as a computer programmer, has a poor diet and approaches his job with lethargy and a lack of commitment, while John is dedicated to his post, eager to keep up with those more naturally inclined to the sciences (he sees himself more as a poet). Both migrants are struggling just the same, no matter how they appear. Their proud abandonment of their country, their families, was a smokescreen disguising their discomfort toward themselves.

the protagonist and Coetzee experience a coming of age, from delusion, evasion and distraction to knowledge, self-acceptance and realism

The blinding simplicity and delusion at the beginning and throughout the novel is slowly abandoned, he recognises the reality of migration, and the reality that, really, he wanted an escape through poetry, his imagination, lust and his nomadic lifestyle. His ‘Sunday Supplements’ of reading the paper and busying himself with reading, become “too transparently a way of killing time”: this bildungsroman text is ultimately an autobiographical reflection of J M Coetzee’s own struggles migrating to England in the 1980s, where both the protagonist and he experience a coming of age, from delusion, evasion and distraction to knowledge, self-acceptance and realism.

John’s call for the ambulance to also carry him away in a body bag is not a cry for help but an emancipatory realisation for him that the reader can only assume will be hopeful. I would recommend this novel whole-heartedly.


Last modified: 21st April 2020

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