First published in 1974, Dusklands is the first novel by South African writer J M Coetze and is, in fact, my first encounter with the 2003 Nobel Laureate. It is the kind of book that may be short in length, but – on account of its complexity – demands not to be rushed.

The book consists of two seemingly unrelated narratives. The first, set in the early 1970s is the testimony of Eugene Dawn who, whilst working on developing methods of psychological warfare for the Americans in the Vietnam War (and reporting to a superior named Coetze), descends suffers a mental breakdown which results in his abducting and stabbing his son in a fit of paranoia. The second takes the form of the journal of an eighteenth-century colonialist, Jacobus Coetze, recording his terrible revenge on a Hottentot tribe that he feels had previously humilisted him and challenged his assumptions of his own racial supremacy.

These are both disturbing stories and are linked, of course, by a common concern (albeit from different historical perspectives) of the brutality and inhumanity of colonolialism and imperialist assumptions. His writing has at times been compared to Conrad and this may be true in so far as Dusklands charts two separate, but linked, journeys into hearts of darkness.


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