This thesis aims to discuss the important connections and interaction between historical context and narrative presentation in literature. On the basis of a narrow selection of fictional literature, I investigate how two contemporary South African authors, André Brink and J.M. Coetzee, relate to the facts and the narratives of history in the context they write from and to which they persistently write back. The striking differences between the two novelists have made me investigate into similarities and differences in the ways they negotiate the complex interplay of the discourses of history and fiction in a colonial or postcolonial debate on personal and public aspects of identity and belonging, authority and agency.
General concepts and viewpoints within postcolonial theory provide a basis for my investigation, while the more specific questions to the texts about history and narrative are informed by narrative theory and new historicism. The theories of Hayden White have been particularly interesting in relation to my problem statement.
I have chosen two novels of each author – one on either side of the political watershed of 1994, when apartheid was abolished and South Africa entered on a violent and uncertain development towards democracy. Brink’s novels are An Instant in the Wind (1976) and Imaginings of Sand (1996). Coetzee’s are Life & Times of Michael K (1983) and Disgrace (1999).
My method for writing the thesis has been a combination of close reading of the texts and a reading of their historical context. Respecting the novels’ integrity as autonomous verbal utterances in dialogue with their historical context, my analysis has been a negotiation between the main questions of my problem statement and the questions emanating from the texts themselves.
In the four main chapters of the thesis, I convey my analyses of these texts. The main points about each individual work are brought together in a final, concluding chapter which also attempts to trace the development within the fiction of each writer, linking the works subjected to discussion to the changes of the context they write from and comparing their attitudes and strategies in relation to the questions I have asked.
What I have found is that both engage with the silences, omissions and lies of the historical discourse, inviting comparative reading of text and context. Brink is first and foremost the story-teller, the mediator acting in his present to bridge the gap between the personal and the public aspects of history. Although his stories may develop in the mind of the reader, yielding more on each new reading, they remain with you as closed entities in their own right. Coetzee’s most distinctive quality is his ambiguous doubleness: a mind and a heart seemingly irreconcilable, contesting in language for some kind of mastery of literature and of life. The author has incessantly maintained the importance for literature to act on its own terms and remain a free force in society to contest the binary visions on reality and any simple understanding of truth. His novels are textual entities comprising the dialogue between his Afrikaner, colonial heritage and his affiliation with the western literary world.Where Brink offers possible answers and alternative strategies in relation to present and future, Coetzee remains the questioner, inviting moral choice on the level of language.