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Booker Prize-winning author J.M. Coetzee gives readers something to think about.

Present Tense


In J.M. Coetzee's 1999 Booker Prize-winning novel, "Disgrace," the central character has left his teaching post at a Cape Town university after a soured affair with a student. While living with his daughter in the countryside, he assists at an animal clinic where, every Sunday, many dogs must be killed. He has taken it upon himself to haul the dead animals to the incinerator and load them onto the conveyor trolley, rather than let the workers fling the stiffened bodies on and break the legs so they won't get stuck. He wonders why he bothers:

"For the sake of the dogs? But the dogs are dead; and what do dogs know of honour and dishonour anyway?

"For himself, then. For his idea of the world, a world in which men do not use shovels to beat corpses into a more convenient shape for processing."

In Coetzee's novels, individuals struggle with the difference between their ideas of the world and the world as it runs. Although his stories are often read as allegories of or comment on South Africa as it moves through political permutations of power, the books resonate at a personal level. They are the stories of people who — like any of us — do what they can, or must, to live out their ideas of the world, with good or bad results.

Thursday (Oct.25) the University of Richmond will host Coetzee, who also won the Booker Prize in 1983 for "Life and Times of Michael K." He is the only author to have won the prize more than once. Coetzee, distinguished professor of literature at the University of Cape Town, is the author of more than a dozen works of fiction and essays, most recently, "The Lives of Animals." First presented as a lecture at Princeton University, the story is that of a novelist who gives a lecture about animal rights.

"I've been working of late toward blurring the line between lecture and reading," says Coetzee. "What I present on October 25 may be in this mixed medium. Or I may offer a purely narrative piece. I haven't decided yet."

A memoir that blurs the line between fiction and history is a current project for Coetzee.

"I hope to complete a follow-up to my book 'Boyhood,'" says Coetzee. "'Boyhood' was the story of a child growing up in the South Africa of the 1940s and 1950s. I am hoping to take the story further." "Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life" is a present-tense, third-person narrative but is widely considered autobiographical.

In a New York Times review of "Disgrace," Michael Gorra admires "the range of concerns that Coetzee has woven seamlessly together." Coetzee can address universal questions so powerfully because characters dealing with a range of concerns, are central to the book, not the concerns themselves. To read his novels is not to read about South Africa, even when that happens to be their setting; it is to read about someone who is, at heart, rather like yourself.

"I certainly don't write 'about' things," Coetzee says. "I don't see that my writing is particularly political (I may be wrong). My people simply live in the midst of history."

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