South African author J.M. Coetzee is one of those authors who tends to shun the spotlight and after his award winning novel “Waiting For The Barbarians” and subsequent publications, interest in him grew. Naturally, the reading public wanted to know more about him but unlike many other authors, he retreated into solitude. While not a completely reclusive author like Thomas Pynchon (who shuns public appearances - and even photographs - altogether) or J.D. Salinger, who disappeared from public life in 1965 until his death, Coetzee has done interviews, made appearances, but more or less his private life is not well known to his fans.
“Boyhood” is billed as a “fictionalized memoir” so it’s hard to say how much of it is actually true and how much of it he had taken liberties with. The approach is interesting being that it’s written in the third person, present tense, the voice of the now much older man telling his story about growing up in provincial South Africa in the 1950s. The book covers the author’s tenth year when his family moved from Cape Town to the more rural area of Worcester, a then new development which, judging from the descriptions, was little more than an outpost in the middle of nowhere. The main story here is that of a highly sensitive boy who grew up not respecting his father and both adoring and resenting his mother. It tells of his early school years and how he led a more or less “double life”: the smart, well behaved boy at school and the little despot he was at home, always worried about losing his mother’s affections. We learn of his first encounters with literature, the awakenings of his sexual desire, and most interestingly, the social dynamics of growing up in South Africa at that time. It’s far more than a Black/White thing, but also of English v Afrikaner, rich v poor, the differences in language and culture, and how even among the white population there was a very strict and glaring divide.
There really isn’t much here about his literary life, other than the books he enjoyed to read as a child. What’s here is more of a social document, that of a young South African boy coming to terms with the life he lives and trying to understand all the differences and contradictions of the society in which he belongs. This, and all his feelings about even the most insignificant of things turns out to be highly significant with regard to his later creative life. A very interesting read - but if you’re looking for an in-depth account of Coetzee’s life, this is not the place. This could have been any ten year old white boy from provincial South Africa, and I suppose that is precisely the point of this intriguing story. Recommended.