“You have held an Indian audience silent for over forty five minutes…”
Of all the discussions, debates and readings at the festival, this was my favourite, because it was such a pure reading. Coetzee offered only a brief introduction, took no questions; this was not the usual ten-minute excerpt, either.
Only poets read a complete piece of work these days, and sometimes playwrights. The fiction author must read in excerpts, offering short takes that s/he hopes will be enough to draw you, the reader, into the rest of the work. To have a complete short story, read by an author like Coetzee, is a gift.
After he read, I was thinking about the unequal relationship between readers and auhors. Seated across the famously silent Coetzee at a dinner hosted by Random House the previous day, I had little to say to him: the author has no time for small talk, and doesn’t like discussing his books, which set certain limits on the conversation. We spoke in brief spurts about vegetarian Indian cuisines, about cats; Neel Mukherjee and he discussed the Naxal movement in India, and then we all returned to our shining thalis of gatte ki subzi and kair sangri.
Aside from my own social shyness, I seldom want to talk to the writers whose work has meant the most to me, because that conversation might be both too personal—the year Waiting For Barbarians changed my life, the year Disgrace changed my thinking—and superfluous, because their works gave me as a reader everything I needed. There are writers you read in one voracious gulp, discovering all their books, and obsessively reading everything, every last short story, every out-take and interview, over the course of two, three years—that was how I’d read Garcia Marquez and Tagore.
Coetzee was, for me, the other kind of writer: you discover their writing in your teens, and then you follow them as the books come out, each new book defining and changing a key part of your twenties and thirties. Coetzee had been my window into understanding violence and estrangement and the remoteness of the human heart, and then later, he became perhaps the only twentieth century writer to include animals into his view of the world—not as characters, but as the co-inhabitants of a world we think of as “peopled”, as silent and often helpless sharers in the actions of humankind.
Here is Coetzee, reading one of his Lessons. The writer Neel Mukherjee explained to me that Coetzee’s Lessons were not limited to Elizabeth Costello, but his preferred way of combining the essay with fiction. This lesson is about cats, and why they don’t have faces; about strays of all kinds, and children, and the relationship between parent and child, about estrangement and, perhaps, love. You must imagine him reading this on the vast, crowded lawns of the Diggi Palace in Jaipur, the afternoon sun bright on our faces, the humans silent and rapt, and only the green parrots punctuating Coetzee’s voice with their swift squawks.
Link: The Old Woman and The Cats, read by Coetzee.