J. M. Coetzee on censorship

The Coetzee session has just finished, and as I write this a huge queue is snaking through the Aotea Centre – filled with people waiting to have a book signed by the great man. There was a massive buzzing crowd for the Nobel Prize and Man Booker (twice) winner. Coetzee, now a citizen of Australia, was introduced by Witi Ihimaera who spoke of him as a writer unflinchingly going for the jugular and as one of the greatest writers of our times; he praised his highly intellectual and scrupulous fiction and said he believes every NZ family should have one of his books in their library.

Coetzee spoke about censorship, and then did some readings – from In the heart of the country, Waiting for barbarians and The Life and Times of Michael K. His revelations about censorship were astonishing and gave new knowledge of how the old South African regime was run.

His introduction was a revelation, he spoke of the relationship between censor and writer as being like having stranger’s intimate attentions forced on you. He looked at his novels which came under the attention of censors in the 1980s. South Africa, he said, was moving from a utopian phase to realpolitik. Firstly the government thought they could put a protective ring of steel around the country.

Both phases used censorship:

1 – to ensure the white nation would remain strong and virile

2 – no communist propaganda would enter
He referred to these as the moral and political arm of censorship.

In the 70s and 80s, most South African fiction was published abroad and imported – and therefore it had to be checked for immoral or subversive content. In 1990 the Directorate of publications was quietly mothballed,  and in 1994 democracy arrived and the archives of the apartheid years were opened. One of the things that had not been destroyed  were the internal censors reports on books. Coetzee assumed they would have been shredded but a  young scholar found reports on his books and sent them to him

Some of the intriguing commentary from the censors:

On “In the heart of country” (it was read by various censors)
Sex across colour bar, always functionally described, highly intellectual surface and deep structure will be read and enjoyed only by intellectual readers, “a work of stature”, “style that is sometimes hermetic”, “this is not enjoyable recreational reading”, “a difficult obscure multilayered work -will only read by intellectuals”

“Waiting for Barbarians” was only read by one reader – symbolism not particularised, “sombre unrelieved sex not lust provoking”, “it quite lacks popular appeal, limited to intelligentsia”

Michael K also had only one reader who noted it contained derogatory comments on state and police, likely readers will be sophisticated.

All books recommended to pass by the censors.

What he also found out by reading these reports is that he knew many of his censors. One was a known writer, the mother of one of his colleagues. Others were professors he had known. The white intellectual community not large was not large and he had no idea he had been “rubbing shoulders daily with people making judgements”. They clearly found it ok to have friendly social relations with authors they were censoring. The censors regarded themselves as guardians of republic of letters too
and they used on his behalf the rules of the act; they regarded themselves as unsung heroes of a kind, doing a dirty job in order to protect South African literature against politicians and philistines.

So it was not little bureaucrats stamping pass or fail, going home to their stamp collection, and going to bed in pyjamas, censors had real life jobs, reviewing, with a bit censoring on the side. They believed in it – they were conservative and also concerned for literature, and didn’t want functionaries to do the job.

After this interesting look into censorship,  Coetzee gave us three readings – solemn, serious and utterly befitting his gravitas. The Festival did well to get him here, and as I finish writing the queue to meet him is finally meeting the end.

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