Since the publication of his first novel in 1974, J. M. Coetzee has attained a reputation as one of the world's most respected novelists. The demand for his works is related to the world's interest in the politics, literature, culture, and society of South Africa. However, Coetzee's fictions remain significant, according to Penner, apart from their South African context, because of their artistry and because they transform urgent societal concerns into more enduring questions regarding colonialism and the relationships of mastery and servitude between cultures and individuals.
Penner provides an in-depth, critical reading of Coetzee's five novels, drawing upon primary and critical texts on Western and South African literature and society. He argues that Coetzee's writings subvert traditional novel forms and thus become self-reflexive commentaries on the nature of fiction and fiction writing. Despite the diversity of their forms, Coetzee's novels all deal with the Cartesian division between the self and others that is at the base of all colonial and master/slave relationships. Many of Coetzee's protagonists who struggle to escape this Cartesian dichotomy and the colonizing mentality it fosters also hold a privileged status within their societies. As a result, they face a moral dilemma: even if they are personally innocent of any acts of oppression, they still share responsibility as members of the colonizing group. If Coetzee does not provide solutions or a direct call to action to resolve South Africa's enormous problems, Penner suggests, it is because Coetzee is striking at a more fundamental problem: the psychological, philosophical, and linguistic foundations of the colonial dilemma. Penner also deals with the question of Coetzee's identity as a South African writer, arguing that his tradition is the broader Western literary tradition of which South Africa is a part. This book should be read by anyone interested in Coetzee's fiction, modern fiction, and Third World and South African literature.