South Africa, in the middle of nowhere. An isolated farm, a white man and his unmarried daughter and a black servant and his husband, all trapped in a web of reciprocal oppression. Everything collapses when the father decides to seek comfort from his loneliness in the arms of his servant, causing his daughter Magda to dream of and eventually take her bloody revenge by killing her father.
The story is told from Magda’s point of view in the form of a diary, made of 266 passages. It is a fragmented and incoherent writing, reflecting a disturbed mind. Magda is an embittered spinster and a mad woman: she is a prisoner of her body and of the house she lives in. Her interior monologue reflects the house and its dark and claustrophobic spaces. It’s a prison, a place of hallucinations, where madness grows and grows. The scene of the parricide, for instance, is told in three different ways, and we are told that she also committed a matricide, but we don’t know if it’s true or it only a figment of her imagination. As we go on with our reading, the line between real facts and the workings of her imagination becomes blurred.
This novel by J. M. Coetzee could be set in any time in South Africa’s history. There are nor temporal nor spacial indications: these infinite space and time are like Magda’s story, which is fragmented and is nor a diary nor a confession, a letter nor all these forms all put together. It’s a psychological and family novel, and can be read on multiple levels. It’s about loneliness, the craving for love, the complicated relations between black and white, master and servant, man and woman, and deep human anguish. But it’s also a novel that ends with a glimmer of hope, the hope that South Africa will one day be able to find a new language.
What does one do with desire? My eye falls idly on objects, odd stones, pretty flowers, strange insects: I pick them up, bear them home, store them away. [...] to the spur of desire we have only one response: to capture, to enclose, to hold. But how real is our possession? The flowers turn to dust, Hendrick uncouples and leaves, the land knows nothing of fences, the stones will be here when I have crumbled away, the very food I devour passes through me. I am not one of the heroes of desire, what I want is not infinite or unattainable, all I ask myself, faintly, dubiously, querulously, is whether there is not something to do with desire other than striving to possess the desired in a project which must be vain, since its end can only be the annihilation of the desired.