In the Heart of the Country and Pain: Re-reading Space, Gender and Affect


This essay offers a new spatial reading of In the Heart of the Country. It explores J. M. Coetzee’s interest in grounding white female narrators in heterotopic spaces which, while marked by terror and racial divisions, simultaneously enforce proximity and intimacy across the racial bar. It shows that grounding Magda within the specific phenomenology of the farm enables Coetzee to explore a set of traumatic double-binds which are not only discursive but also sensorial, psychic as well as affective. It concludes by arguing that the strong self-referentiality of the novel can itself be read as an affective symptom, the trace of psychic parceling which happens at the intersection of space, symbol and traumatic power relations.

J. M. Coetzee’s early female narrators – Magda in In the Heart of the Country (1977), Susan in Foe (1986) and Mrs Curren in Age of Iron (1990) – share a number of thematic tropes and narratological patterns. They all write in the first person, privileging private genres such as the diary or the letter. They write from spaces which elicit a sense of loss, separation, or entrapment. Magda, for instance, writes from the room of an isolated farm in the middle of the Karoo semi-desert; Susan in Foe is a castaway on Cruso’s island and writes letters to Foe. Mrs Curren is not a castaway but she writes letters to her exiled daughter in America from a position of physical vulnerability as she is dying of cancer and becomes increasingly impaired in her mobility. Moreover, all three female narrators, although victims of a patriarchal system, write from a privileged position of whiteness and remain implicated in ambivalent relations of colonial power (Kossew). In In the Heart of the Country, Hendrik and Klein-Anna are Magda’s servants. In Foe, Friday is Cruso’s slave; he rescues Susan but he cannot tell his story since his tongue has been cut off. In Age of Iron, Verceuil is a taciturn squatter who gradually becomes closer to Mrs Curren and eventually moves into the house with her. These are three strongly meta-fictional narratives which are very much aware of their status as fiction. Magda, Susan and Mrs Curren constantly reflect on the medium of language and the practice of writing they engage in. At the same time, as Derek Attridge has pointed out (J. M. Coetzee; ‘Ethical Modernism’), this anti-illusionist aesthetics is not merely a playful post-modern device but an ethically inflected narratological strategy on Coetzee’s part to engage readers with figures of alterity: the reader is asked, in the process of reading, to recognise the other as ‘Other’.

In the following re-reading of In the Heart of the Country, I am interested in exploring more deeply Coetzee’s interest in grounding his white female narrators in spaces which, while marked by racial divisions, simultaneously and painfully enforce proximity and ambivalent intimacy with the racial ‘Other’.

After reading this novel a number of times, I was struck by the numerous and rich phenomenological descriptions Magda provides of the farm: its isolation, its surrounding vastness, its insect and animal life, its beauty, its heat, its unbearable silence, its sluggish temporality. Magda’s voice is not simply set against a specific setting or background. Coetzee consciously places a white woman narrator within a deeply ambivalent environment which, on the one hand, is described as a clearly demarcated space of power and control and, on the other hand, is an intimate microcosm fostering painful affective and psychic conflicts across the racial bar; here, contiguity and proximity exist at the same time as separation and control are set in place. This essay suggests that grounding a white female narrator within the specific phenomenology of the farm enables Coetzee to explore a range of painful interstices, a set of colonial double-binds which are not only discursive – as Sue Kossew has rightly argued – but also psychic, sensorial as well as affective.

In her magisterial study on the politics of place in South African writing, Rita Barnard has amply discussed J. M. Coetzee’s critical engagement with the South African pastoral. Barnard argues that Coetzee’s early writing – both academic and fictional – has aimed at demystifying romanticised renderings of the farm as an idyllic place. In her deconstructive reading of In the Heart of the Country, she agrees with Teresa Dovey’s argument that the novel is ‘anti-spatial’ or, in Roland Barthes’s terms, an ‘atopia’. Atopia, writes Barnard, ‘evokes in appropriately spatial (or perhaps antispatial) terms, the deconstructive and writerly quality of Coetzee’s texts’ (21). To a large extent, she reads the landscape as ‘entirely fictive’, (22) as ‘a figment of Magda’s narratorial consciousness’ (23) even if, at the end of her reading, she concedes that Magda cannot easily escape the seduction of the Karoo landscape.

My reading departs from this view. Coetzee’s novels are meta-fictional and self-referential but, at the same time, Magda’s narrative bears a significant affective dimension and her descriptions of the farm have the power to evoke sensory material at the same time as they discursively construct a particular version of the landscape. Through a phenomenological reading, I want to show how Coetzee’s demystificatory impulse towards the pastoral also entails taking stock of the painful, traumatic and affective legacy such seductive, romanticised but, also, ambivalent spaces have left behind. According to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, space is not a neutral or objective arena against which human events unfold. Space is always ‘lived space’: it has a sensorial, inter-subjective and affective quality. As people, we are always ‘firmly embedded in a world even before we represent it to ourselves through geometrical or symbolic means’ (Locke and McCann 5). As space is neither strictly speaking ‘an object’ or merely ‘discursive’, I am interested in exploring the linguistic-spatial nexus as a dynamic relation: in which ways do the lunar landscape of the Karoo together with the isolation of the farm and the maddening conditions of colonial relations relate to Magda’s solipsistic and painful narrative?

Within the specific context of South Africa, then, phenomenology can enable us to re-open the apartheid archive in order to mark out new readings of spatial and racial relations. According to Robert P. Harrison, phenomenology allows us to ‘return to the density and historicity of lived experience’ (De Bruyn) and, for Felski, it allows us to inquire into ‘patterns of feeling’, to capture ‘the quality and sheer intensity of attachments’ (19). As will be shown in the following analysis, colonial power is not only epistemic or symbolical but also consists of material structures and is informed by the specificities of space. When I speak about power, I mean a peculiar stylistics of colonial sovereignty which, as Achille Mbembe has widely explained in his work, cannot be ‘interpreted strictly in terms of surveillance, or the politics of coercion’ (Postcolony 128). He calls it a form of ‘intimate tyranny’ (Postcolony 128) which works first and foremost through the senses, bodily contiguity, techniques of both enchantment and terror: in other words, a cruel and ambivalent form of power which deeply deforms subjectivities and relations.

As Rita Felski has eloquently shown, phenomenology is not antithetical to critique or a tool to fall back on naïve empiricisms, nor does it deny the ways in which language might determine our existence. No matter how partial or flawed, argues Felski, language still represents our primary means of attaining both self-knowledge and an understanding of the world. Intrigued by ‘what this condition of being-a-self involves’, phenomenology insists that ‘the world is always the world as it appears to us, as it is filtered through our consciousness, perception, and judgment’ (Felski 17). The novel, argues Felski, ‘spins out endless modulations on the theme of subjectivity . . . meditating on the murky depths of motive and desire, seeking to map the elusive circuits and by-ways of consciousness, highlighting countless connections and conflicts between self-determination and socialization’ (26). In other words, the strong self-referentiality of Coetzee’s novel can itself be read as an affective symptom, the trace of psychic parcelling which happens at the intersection of space, symbolisation and traumatic power relations.

This essay is divided into two parts: in the first part, I argue that the farm in In the Heart of the Country has a peculiarly heterotopic and traumatic character; in the second part, I show how this intimate space of terror complicates colonial relations in important ways. Although Magda certainly writes from a painful position of ‘ex-centricity’, as Carmen Concilio has suggested, in the double sense of living materially on the edge of the farm’s centre, ‘cut off from any economic circuit’ but, also, ‘ex-centred’ affectively and psychically speaking, as she remains excluded from any circuit of love (43–44), it is precisely and paradoxically that lack of real contact with the black world which will trigger a set of traumatic entanglements. These are deep involvements, painful forms of mutual dependence of a material, psychic and affective order.

Rethinking the Farm as ‘Heterotopia’

In ‘Different Spaces’, Foucault defined heterotopias as totalitarian sites which, although connected to the polis are also, at the same time, topographically outside and other to it. In this context, Foucault mentions prisons, mental institutions and cemeteries, but also ships and colonies. Two principles mentioned by Foucault when defining heterotopias will be particularly relevant for the following reading. One concerns the idea of borders, entries and exit points, and the other concerns the inner design, the quintessential orderly organisation and strict spatial codification of such spaces. Heterotopias, explains Foucault, ‘always presuppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable’ (7). Openings function as regulatory markers of power, as these are never simple or pure entries but ‘hide curious exclusions’ (7). Speaking of colonies, Foucault explains how life is scrupulously regulated as their role is ‘to create a space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled’ (8).

The farm In the Heart of the Country has the features such as hors lieu. In her countless descriptions, Magda emphasises the ‘outsidedeness’ of the farm. She calls it an ‘island out of space, out of time’ (134). The image of the island is highly evocative and complies precisely with Foucault’s notion of heterotopias: on the one hand, islands have clear borders and are easily surveyable; on the other hand, they remain separate, ‘apart’ from the main land. Magda’s remarks swing constantly between the farm as a clearly demarcated, closed, even claustrophobic place, and the farm as a borderless, immeasurable, infinite space blowing up traditional spatial and temporal coordinates. She often repeats that she lives in ‘the heart of nowhere’ (82) pondering that she ‘might as well be living on the moon’ (45). In another significant passage, she tells the reader that the farm is set ‘on the road from A to no B in the world, if such a fate is topologically possible’ (21), observing that ‘this part of the world is naked in every direction to the eye of the hunter; he who cannot burrow is lost’ (133). Magda’s farm is penetrable, vulnerable, and simultaneously a unit of power, a place of paranoid control and obedience, marked by clear demarcations and divisions. Magda is aware of this ironic ambivalence about the farm’s borders. This becomes clear when speaking about Hendrik and Klein-Anna, as she – rather cynically – remarks that she does not know whether they should be considered ‘guests, invaders or prisoners’ (112).

To enter this unmapped, ‘other’ – almost surreal – space means to enter a meticulously regulated and ordered place where racial relations, tasks, roles, daily rhythms and habitudes, as well as locations, are all fastidiously codified and marshalled. ‘Angry, loveless’ (25), ‘stern and drawn’ (30), at the head of this unit of power sits the master, who with his arrogant, cold presence, his ‘booted feet’ (55) and his icy silence casts a dark shadow over the farm. When he arrives home, the reader is told, he must be helped out of his boots (18), bathed and washed (11): he must be cared for and served all the time. In his vicinity Magda ‘bow[s] her head’ and ‘move[s] demurely’ (18) as she and the servants ‘contract’ (32). Space and time, people and things around him, are only meant to be ordered and controlled; the servants, his concubines and his daughter are nothing but tools, things, merely used to satisfy his own desires and needs. On the farm, he uses language only in order to ‘issue commands’ (50) so that people around him can be waved away or recalled any time as he pleases. His presence, therefore, is a constant source of stiffness and tension on the farm. He is the one obsessed with thresholds and boundaries, the one who decides who is allowed to enter and exit the farm, who controls and delimits the living areas of the servants, what they are allowed to own and receive, the places where at given times they are expected to be.

‘In a house shaped by destiny like an H’, complains Magda, ‘I have lived all my life, in a theatre of stone and sun fenced in with miles of wire, spinning my trail from room to room’ (3). As Carmen Concilio correctly notices, the H-form of the house reminds us visually of other heterotopias such as ‘prisons, hospitals and asylums’ (46). Drawing on a vocabulary which is typical for prisons and mental institutions, Magda explains that the farmhouse has two wings (the two vertical dashes of the H) connected by a long passage (the hyphen in between). Plus, as has already been mentioned, Magda often refers to her room as her ‘cell’ and the reader is explicitly told that it is not located in the same wing as her father’s bedroom. In the course of the narrative, in fact, we see Magda crossing that passage (the hyphen) in the attempt to connect and speak to her father yet, each time, she tragically fails and is dispatched back to her room. The two symmetrical wings running parallel to each other not only evoke Magda’s and her father’s seemingly unbridgeable worlds; the H-form is also metonymic of the larger spatial disposition of the farm and of the division between the black servants’ and Magda’s space. However, it is important to note that spatial allocations on the farm are never only dictated by race; gender roles inform the logic of spatial division as much as race does. Klein-Anna, for instance, spends considerable time with Magda inside the farmhouse, since she must cook, do the dishes, clean the windows and wash the floors, and the two women often find themselves sharing the kitchen or the living room. Hendrik, in turn, is not supposed to cross the threshold: he stops in the doorway when he pleads for work for his wife; his place is outside with the cattle, the cows to be milked, the sheep to be sheared or slaughtered. His tasks also include heavier activities like cutting wood, digging holes or repairing fences: ‘We have our places, Hendrik and I, in an old code. With fluid ease we move through the paces of our dance’, says Magda (27).

However, this meticulous arrangement of tasks, places and roles on the farm, the neat codification of thresholds and borders within this heterotopia, functions with ‘fluid ease’ only on the surface. In this ‘island out of space, out of time’, whites and blacks are not running parallel existences, indifferent to each other’s presence. While the farm is surrounded with an overwhelming, almost threatening vastness, it is itself a small, easily surveyable microcosm. Indeed, Magda describes it as an intimate island where the various locations are easily reachable in walking distance, where whites and blacks are constantly aware not only of each other’s presence, but also of their daily routines, intimate habits, time schedules and occupations. Magda knows exactly when Hendrik is about to cross the yard in the morning to milk the cows, when her father will get up or when Klein-Anna will enter the kitchen. Her father’s hair gets trimmed with impeccable regularity, and the reader is even told at which intervals the buckets where Magda and her father regularly release their bowels will be emptied by Hendrik.

If it is a small microcosm marked by hierarchically vertical relationships where land, and more generally, material dispossession is most obvious, the farm, as portrayed by Coetzee, is also an eerie place made up of deep contradictions and ambivalences; above all, it is a much less ‘safe’ and less ‘predictable’ space in terms of racial relations than usually assumed. If the farm is a segregated space marked by clear divisions and allotments, the farm is also a space where transgressions are potentially most easily carried through, for it is a space of permanent bodily contiguity and spatial proximity, and therefore constant tension. It is for this reason that transitional spaces in the text, such as front and back doorways, the passage in the house, the yard, the veranda, the stoep, the stairs and even windows, require a closer analysis, since these are the spaces which best unmask the farm’s fragility, its apparent spatial order and regulated division between masters and servants. They are very sensitive interstices which always generate tension and bring the action to a climax, where subversions, potential role reversals but also ambivalent, intimate moments of mutual attraction and ressentiment, yearning and repulsion, as well as compromising gazes, come to the fore.

‘In the Heart of Pain’: Traumatic Entanglements on the Farm

What keeps shimmering prominently through Magda’s fragmented narrative is a vivid description of the farm’s atmosphere – what at the end of the reading process emerges as nothing less than a phenomenology of the farm – its landscape and climate, but also the bodily-psychic behaviour it induces in its inhabitants, the ways in which it shapes their emotions and affects, their sense of time and space. Despite its unbearable heat – the cause of many migraines and fatigues – its vastness, its draughts, its dangerous insect and wildlife, the farm is described through Magda’s eyes as possessing a breathtaking beauty, which paradoxically, Magda finds ‘corrupting’: ‘I am corrupted to the bone with the beauty of this forsaken world’ (139). Yet, the farm can equally infect, psychically and emotionally speaking, with its crippling and neurotic atmosphere, its pathological tendencies, idiosyncrasies, tics and whims.

The metaphors Magda chooses to describe inter-racial relations on the farm suggest deep complication and ensnarement. Two metaphors are particularly striking: when speaking of Klein-Anna and the sexual relationship her father has hypocritically started to force upon her, Magda refers to her as a ‘pawn’ (37) and, in an earlier instance, when thinking about her own relationship to Hendrik – of whom she knows nothing – she reflects that they both nevertheless move ‘with fluid ease through the paces of [their] dance’ (27; my emphasis). These are significant remarks which already hint at a deeply entangled condition, a relationship between master and servant which goes beyond the usual refrains of material dispossession and unilateral subjugation, a simple dichotomy between victim and perpetrator, the powerful master versus the utterly impotent servant. The metaphors she uses speak of a tragic shared matrix in which whites are the players and the servants have no real power to resist, and in which both master and servant are – despite the obvious discrepancy of power – equally trapped, equally unfree. In particular, the image of the ‘pawn’ immediately conjures up a chessboard with its clearly demarcated black and white squares, a shared ground – and episteme – in which only a limited repertoire of moves is granted on both sides, according to a limited set of rules which both sides have agreed to stick to so that the game can carry on. Within this minutely choreographed dance or precisely regulated chess game, each person on the farm resembles a figurant entangled with the rest of the players through a series of phenomenological acts and gestures – ranging from different speech acts to psychic, emotional and spatio-temporal experiences.

Magda depicts the farm as a highly neurotic place, made up of unbearable automatisms, with a language all of its own consisting of strange bodily gestures and cryptic signals. While from her room she can register a range of sounds and noises – the thud of her father’s boots, the clank of Hendrik’s milk pail against the stony floor, the chirps and clicks of the cicadas and crickets outside – the farm is otherwise a place of unbearable silence, bereft of human speech and dialogue: ‘Across valleys of space and time we strain ourselves to catch the pale smoke of each other’s signals’ (8). The text is replete with painful complaints about the silence her father imposes on her and his servants. The ‘tower with eyes’ (44) – as she calls him – imposes his ‘moody silences’ (56) on his surroundings and with his silence creates absences wherever he goes.1 He only uses language to issue commands. Correspondingly, Hendrik and Klein-Anna are granted only a limited repertoire to answer, to acknowledge the master’s orders; otherwise they walk around without language, muted, ‘cowed’ (11) with ‘hunched shoulders’ (7). ‘I am spoken to not in words . . . but in signs, in conformations of face and hands, in postures of shoulders and feet, in nuances of tune and tone, in gaps and absences whose grammar has never been recorded’ (8), says Magda. If, on the one hand, this is a powerful means through which the master manages to maintain his sovereignty, Magda hints at the fact that this is part of a common, shared code made up of daily gestures and signals to which both masters and servants attune and adapt themselves. It is a language they have both intimately learnt to use and share: ‘This is our language’, says Magda, ‘opaque to the outsider’ but ‘dense to its children, with moments of solidarity, moments of distance’ (33; my emphasis).

What is more, this small island in the midst of vastness is characterised by both visual and auditory surveillance. Re-evoking a prison-like atmosphere, Magda complains that she feels surrounded by ‘whispering watchers’ (78) and observes how ‘in this bare land it is hard to keep secrets. We live naked beneath each other’s hawk-eyes’ (35). On the farm there is an assiduity of contact – partly searched for, partly unwanted – according to which everyone watches and is being watched; sounds and movements do not escape the observer and are always under compulsive scrutiny. These looks of control, however, alternate with interminable moments of eyes ‘roaming blank across their fields of vision’ (3). Magda very often captures herself staring numbly into the chimney recess, while her father stares blankly into the grate. Often, she sees her father sitting silently on his stoep, ‘roaming blankly into the distance’ (21); ‘that is our wont here,’ says Magda, ‘that must be the origin of our speculative bias, staring into the distance, staring into the fire’ (21).

Indeed, watching – but often listening as well – is one of the most prominent tropes in the book, part of an important larger economy of desire. What does one do with desire? How to keep at bay ‘the dragons of desire’ (27) through the medium of language, asks Magda. To put it differently, she seems to ask how to bear so much bodily contiguity and closeness within an institutionalised state of distance. The horizontal relationship Magda is forbidden to have with Hendrik and Klein-Anna seems to erupt in powerful pulsations, a ‘ticking’ (118) as she calls it, a constant psychic investment in the racial other, involving smaller or bigger obsessions ranging from compulsive watching, visual and auditory voyeurism to libidinal fantasies. In her book, Entanglement, Sarah Nuttall explains how whiteness ‘has always involved watching and looking’, something that Fanon called racial scopophilia – ‘sets of racially coded solicited and unsolicited looks caught in the tension of demand and desire’ (68). Nuttall looks more closely at more recent texts by white South African writers in which the tropes of looking and watching are part of a ‘complex dialectics of distance and proximity’ (61). In some texts, watching represents a moment of ‘splitting’ and ‘dissociation’ from one’s own racial position, in which whiteness is simultaneously acknowledged and resisted, or moments where looking and watching are shot through with desire, the ‘consuming of the image and the body of the other’ (Nuttall 72).

Similarly, Coetzee’s novel is full of references to different forms of looking, different forms of watching the other. Indeed, we could say that the whole book relies on a complex play of different registers of the visual. Magda complains that the physical distance between her and Hendrik ‘has ensured that her gaze falling on him, his gaze falling on her, have remained kindly, incurious, remote’ (27); these gazes bereft of reciprocity seem to be compensated through a symptomatic compulsive looking and watching on Magda’s part. Often it is a voyeuristic act when she peers ‘through a chink in the curtain’ (9) or through the shutters, but, most of the time, it is a watching shot through with pain, longing and desire:

Into the evening, as the shadows first lengthen and then cover everything, I stand at the window. Hendrik crosses the yard on his way to the storeroom. The massed twitter of birds in the riverbed rises and wanes . . . What are pain, jealousy, loneliness doing in the African night? Does a woman looking through a window into the dark mean anything? I place all ten fingertips on the cool glass. The wound in my chest slides open. (10)

Towards the end of the narrative, Magda’s gazes become more and more desperate. In her attempt to establish an amicable, loving exchange of gazes with Hendrik or Klein-Anna, Magda senses that she is actually attaining the opposite effect: ‘I do not leave the kitchen, but sit against the table watching her’ (109), ‘Anna is oppressed by my watching eyes’, she says (123). Through her watching Magda seems to undo a certain kind of whiteness, to undo the authority and power she represents, yet each time she tries to receive a more egalitarian kind of look, all she gets is ‘eyes downcast’ (31) and ‘cowed servitors’ (11).2

As Stephen Clingman explains, ‘The less real equitable contact there is with the colonized, the more scope there is for various mythic imaginings and projections about them’ (4). If we follow the trope of watching and looking throughout the text, we come to see a very different version of the farm which has hardly anything to do with orderly thresholds or limits. We often witness a world made up of strange mutual circlings and croonings: Magda tells the reader that, often, through the crack of her shutters she follows the red kerchief of Klein-Anna with her field glasses and that her father does the same when, like a hunter, he searches for Anna’s kerchief from his stoep; interestingly, when Hendrik crosses the yard, he also looks up at Magda’s window to see whether she is watching him. For a unit of power based on limits and boundaries, then, Magda’s account strikes the reader as being, simultaneously, a messy place, only painstakingly ordered on the surface. It suffices to count how many of Magda’s fragments take place in actual or fantasised bedrooms – first her father’s bedroom, where he has sexual intercourse with his new bride and then with his servant, then Hendrik’s bedroom, where Magda imagines moments of intimacy between him and Klein-Anna and, finally, the incursion of Magda’s own bedroom, where the reader is confronted with different versions of Hendrik’s rape: ‘I cannot see why I should not be spending the night in my bed asleep; I cannot see why my father should not spend the night in his own bed asleep, and Hendrik’s wife the night in her own bed and Hendrik’s, asleep’ (64), says Magda. ‘What is it in me’, she asks ‘that lures me into forbidden bedrooms, and makes me commit forbidden acts?’ (13).

We live in a place of ‘lapidary paradoxes’ (8), complains Magda. One of those lapidary paradoxes is precisely the contradictory and ambivalent behaviour of the master; in fact, he does not respect the limits, inhibitions and prohibitions he imposes on his surroundings. What is traumatising and confusing about the colonial relationship is that the master does not keep in his place; he does not respect the thresholds and limits he keeps setting up so crudely. In fact, he is the first one to break and invade those boundaries. This is because within this ‘everyday allegory of control’ (13), as Clingman calls it, the sexual desires and fantasies of the master are the only ones allowed to remain unchecked, unbridled, unlimited. Magda complains about the ‘relentless sexual demands’ of her father (2); one moment, the servants are kept out of the farm and the next he oversteps the boundary and visits Klein-Anna in her cottage or takes her to his own bedroom while Hendrik is sent to one of the remotest spots on the farm. This is a highly neurotic microcosm, an ‘off-scene’ place which, as Concilio has rightly observed, can easily and quickly also turn into a pathologically degenerated ‘ob-scene’ place (45): ‘we are no more than whim, one whim after another’ (64), admits Magda. Often Magda takes up the role of an auditory witness when she is forced to listen to ‘the cries, muted, stifled, of desire and sorrow and disgust and anguish’ (27) which keep coming from her father’s bedroom. Far from keeping master and servant separate, then, this economy of desire chains master and servant in a tale of mutual obsession, even mutual possession. Speaking about her father’s relation to Klein-Anna, Magda reflects: ‘The truth is that he needs our opposition, our several oppositions, to hold the girl away from him, to confirm his desire for her, as much as he needs our opposition to be powerless against that desire’ (37). In another significant passage, Magda analyses how the nocturnal spectres which link the two wings of the house are not only hers or his: ‘they are ours together. Through them we possess and are possessed by each other’ (37; my emphasis).

Indeed, the most pathological and traumatic trait of the farm is its radical ambivalence. As a smaller unit of the colony, Magda’s farm can be read as an ‘anti-community’, a heterotopia, where cruelly and paradoxically, ‘division and separation [represent] the only manner of ‘living-together’ [être-avec]; that is, while the master ‘cannot accept his servants’ difference, he also refuses similarities; he cruelly and paradoxically desires that the colonized subjects resemble him while simultaneously he forbids this very resemblance’ (Mbembe, ‘The Colony’ 30). Although Magda and Hendrik share the same horizon, the same sky, the same heat, the same noises, the same smells of the farm, although they eat the same food, share the same rhythms and from day to night perceive each other’s presence (and are even buried in the same graveyard once they are dead), her narcissist father – the master – denies this resemblance, this common sensorial and practical life, relegating Hendrik and Klein-Anna to the outward margins of the farm, exploiting and silencing them. Yet, Magda tells us that, cruelly and paradoxically, ‘[Hendrik] is clothed in [her] father’s good castoffs’ and ‘in sickness he is cared for’ (26). Thus, this body which is fed, paid, cared for and clothed is the same body that is simultaneously muted, transfigured and denied any subjectivity.

Material relationships are not separate from this economy of desire but are further complicated by it. Drawing on Mbembe’s theoretical framework, Concilio is the first critic to address a condition of deep material entanglement between whites and blacks in this novel. More precisely, she indirectly hints at a history of mutual corruption and mutual enchantment between whites and blacks. She draws our attention to how Klein-Anna, besides being paid in cash and kind, is cajoled through ‘candies shaped like heart and diamonds, then silver coins, a shilling or even a florin’ (47). Hendrik, on the other hand, is corrupted with alcohol and brandy, which he consumes in great quantities. Concilio analyses how this kind of economy aims at alienating the servants from their own desires and at turning them, in a similar fashion to the master, into ‘worshippers of venality and cupidity’ (51). Within this context, the most significant passage is when, after the father’s death, Magda gives Hendrik and Klein-Anna some of her clothes to be shared as gifts and, suddenly, in a disquieting moment of mimicry, Klein-Anna starts ‘mastering the shoes’ (93), pirouetting in front of her on the stoep and Hendrik wears the father’s clothes, ‘putting his hands on his hips and thrusting his chest out’ (106). This moment of role reversal in which it is no longer clear who is master and who is servant, is evidenced as Hendrik symbolically puts on the boots of Magda’s father – throughout the narrative one of the key symbols of the coloniser’s cruelty and sovereignty. As the father is ‘suspended’ from the scene and Magda turns out to be unable to run the farm, she realises that Hendrik and Klein-Anna are not interested in living in a sort of new communal, egalitarian life with her. They want to continue to be paid with the cash and kind the master used to give them. Thus, as Concilio has remarked, ‘in this simple economy of gifts and goods that the black servants cannot afford, that they do neither need nor know, they become objects dispatching, circulating, engendering and finally sealing desire’ (47).

Coetzee depicts a farm where the vertical relationships and the material dependencies explored above profoundly stunt and deform the emotional life of master and servant alike, further tying them together in a series of poisonous affective liaisons. Coetzee presents a disquieting parallelism between the emotional life of the master and the emotional landscape of the servant. There is no difference when we look into the heart of the country: whites and blacks share the same moods and the same affects. Magda depicts the farm as a place of ‘pure anger, pure gluttony, pure sloth’: ‘If we are tight-lipped’, she says, ‘it is because there is much in us that wants to burst out’ (35). This is not a place for a subtle palette of positive, quiet feelings or emotions; rather, it is a place of negative moods – bad tempers, deep repressed anger and hate – in a nutshell, of passions: ‘Our resentment of each other’, says Magda, ‘though buried in our breasts, sometimes rises to choke us, and we take long walks, digging our fingernails in our palms’ (35). As Concilio also observes, each subject in the novel ‘is not only his own ghost, but also the ghost, the double or the negative of the other’ (53).

Indeed, the heterotopic space of the farm, with its paradoxes, ambivalences and convenient colonial fictions, requires a huge dose of emotional expenditure from both masters and servants. Magda describes herself as a ‘cantankerous’ spinster (81), a sphere of affect ‘quivering with violent energies, ready to burst upon whatever fractures [her]’ (43). Similarly, Magda speaks about the ‘moody silences’ (56) of her father and how he walks around ‘burning with shame, ready to strike dead on the spot whoever wags a finger at him’ (53). The cowed shoulders and the silenced bodies of the servants are but the other side of the masked repressed anger they carry inside, which translates into ‘giddiness’ (7) and fatigue. In reality, they are also besieged by their ‘peevish, loony sentiments’ and ‘scold their children for no good reason’ (8).

Two passages are particularly significant in this respect. In fragment number seventeen Magda presents ‘the psychology of servants’ (8) and, a couple of fragments later, the reader is invited to compare it with what she calls the ‘psychology of masters’ (36). In both cases, the farm is depicted as a place of sudden outpourings and abrupt gestures, its heart ambivalently torn between ‘drags of tedium’ and ‘spurts of excitement’ (3). As masters, says Magda, ‘we search for objects for our anger and, when we find them, rage immoderately’ (35); similarly, Magda depicts the servants as being devoured by drudgery and when ‘goaded’ by the master, ‘lash[ing] the donkey’ and ‘throw[ing] stones at the sheep’ (36). Paradoxically, then, we can argue that the farm is a place held together by a negative reciprocity, by a mutual hate and resentment. Magda tells the reader that her father ‘hates in order to hold himself together’ (56). After he disappears from the scene, she is confronted with Hendrik’s rage, a rage he has been burying in his breast for too long. She describes a Hendrik ‘driven by fury’, beating Klein-Anna, ‘kicking’ and ‘shouting’ at her, ‘his voice . . . big with passion as I’ve never heard it before’ (82). As Magda is unable to pay Hendrik and Klein-Anna, and they refuse her vision of an egalitarian community, an être-avec, we see Hendrik shouting at Magda, raping her and kicking her thighs with anger. ‘What passion he has shown for me’, she observes, ‘has been a passion of rage’ (127).


In an important lecture entitled ‘Beyond the Limit: The Social Relations of Madness in Southern African Fiction’, Stephen Clingman made the point that gender relations and, in particular, white womanhood have always played a crucial role within a colonial environment. Quoting Octave Mannoni, Clingman explains that if the colony is the product of the master’s narcissism, a ‘world of limitless . . . power unchecked by customary moral authority or any other form of reality principle’, once in operation, the colony ‘depends profoundly on the idea of reality and limits’ (13). The colony is ‘founded upon delimitations which divide the colonisers from the colonised’ (13). Within this ambivalent and paradoxical system, the greatest pressure and symbolic weight has always been attached to ‘the boundaries around white womanhood’ (14; my emphasis). Sexuality, in particular, has functioned as the most important marker, ‘not only because it upholds the boundaries preventing miscegenation’, explains Clingman, but because ‘it represents also the limit and shape of a whole order of being’ (14).

This cruel practice of setting up boundaries while the master’s narcissism remains limitless becomes particularly painful as well as particularly palpable in the intimate colonial microcosm of the farm. If, while reading this novel, we allow ourselves to imagine the farm with its complex phenomenology – its silence, its rituals, its intoxicating beauty and terrifying vastness, the intimacy it creates between colonisers and colonised – we come to realise that Magda’s position as a white woman narrator is a highly sexualised and, therefore, affectively charged position – the very embodiment of the limit Clingman speaks about – whereas the white master denies his cruelty and fantasies, Magda’s liminal position becomes a productive site to explore the cracks and fissures of the maddening system the master has set in place.

As Achille Mbembe reminds us, sovereignty and regimes also have a materiality: besides having a topography and a chronography, they are unavoidably inseparable from specific material institutions and structures. Master-servant relationships, too, strongly vary depending on the geographical and spatial context in which they unfold. What Coetzee demonstrates in this timeless novel is that, within such a vast and yet prison-like environment, whites and blacks were always deeply dependent on each other, their lives constantly and mutually implicated, their psyches and bodies unconsciously, emotionally and spatially intertwined.

By re-reading this novel through the lens of space, I have hopefully demonstrated that Magda does not only inhabit a position within ‘discourse’ but that her voice, her self-conscious narrative, cannot be separated from the material landscape from which she speaks. Coetzee’s demystification of the farm also significantly entails an exploration of the traumatic inter-subjective legacy and the affective deformations such romanticised but deeply ambivalent spaces have left behind. Her self-referential narrative is first of all an affective trace of a deadly and alienating system within a landscape – the Karoo semi-desert that has the power to evoke vertiginous anxieties of oblivion and forgetting, the erasure of history, the parcelling of time and identities as well as to remind Magda of her postlapsarian being.

In this inhuman world of failed gazes and failed dialogue, Magda’s body is deformed into a mute chamber. What, for the reader, comes across as a passionate voice is perceived by Magda as an alien skin, a dead, non-rewarding medium. Yet, Magda’s relationship to language is not a straightforward or merely negative one. If at times she complains about her ‘alienating medium’ (28) and that her speech is ‘mere babble’ (123), at the same time we cannot deny that Magda is tenaciously involved in a relentless and laborious process of playful engagement with signs and words. She creatively experiments and tests the semantic polyvalences of words. Let us take the word ‘heart’, for instance, which features in different syntactical and semantic contexts more than forty times throughout the novel. Often, as in the title, it has a geographical connotation, ‘in the heart of the country’ (25), ‘in the heart of nature’ (25), ‘in the heart of nowhere’ (4); at other times she means the beating heart of the body: ‘Resolutely I beat down the blind, subjective time of the heart’ (3), ‘the hammer of my heart’ (9), ‘my heart leaps at this second chance’ (18); but there are also ‘the hearts’ (36) that her father gives to Klein-Anna, the metaphors ‘eating my heart out’ (2), ‘to take to heart’ (129), the ‘knowing by heart’ (27). Neither simply meaningless nor simply meaningful, this compulsive, linguistic return speaks more of a self-reparative attempt to listen to how words resonate within a body embedded within a particular landscape, within a particular world, to measure the relational and dialogical potential they have retained. When encountering the word ‘heart’ so many times, as readers we are asked to stop and pay attention not only to what the word means or, indeed, whether it means anything, but how it resonates, how it feels, to listen carefully to how at home or estranged we feel in our bodies, in the world.


  1. See also ‘Whatever it is that he has been doing today (he never says, I never ask)’ (31), ‘I sit year after year across the table from my silent father, listening to the tiny teeth inside me’ (21).

  2. This is epitomised in the Afrikaans dialogue of the original South African version of the text, where ‘pronouns of intimacy’ are forbidden across the colour bar and the father’s use of the intimate form of ‘you’ (‘jy’ in Afrikaans) violates the language of ‘hierarchy and distance’ in a way that parallels his physical violation both of sex across the colour bar and of miscegenation. I thank Sue Kossew for this comment.

Published 25 February 2018 in Thematising Women in the Work of J. M. Coetzee. Subjects: Gender - Literary portrayal, Women - Literary portrayal, J.M. Coetzee, Phenomenological reading, Space.

Cite as: Borzaga, Michela. ‘In the Heart of the Country and Pain: Re-reading Space, Gender and Affect.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 33, no. 1, 2018.