Politics and Language in J.M. Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” – Nelson Mandela

Ironically, it is very hard to heed Mandela’s advice in South Africa with its eleven languages. The people in South Africa are in constant translation. A translation not only of language, but also of culture and power relations, because, within language itself, there are other languages hidden: that of the master and that of the servant. What is the dynamic between those languages within a language, and how do these languages and theories relate to South African literature, specifically J.M. Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country? First the theoretical background of being in translation and the origin and use of lower class language is discussed. Then, these theories are used to analyse Coetzee’s 1977 novel.

Emily Apter describes in her book The Translation Zone that languages can be used as a weapon. She describes in page 145 of her book that that in Nigeria “fine English” has functioned as a weapon of terror, keeping the lower educated underclass in line, while conditioning them into wanting to speak fine English themselves, but making it almost impossible for them to achieve this. Fine English, or Big English because of its complicated grammatical structure and multi-syllabic words, is the language of the successful. The language of the poor is called Rotten English, for its rotten grammatical structures and simplistic phrasing. Apter describes the power relations between these two languages as follows:

“Big English is to Rotten English what the Nigerian state is to impoverished civilians, and ideal of empowerment that appeals to the ranks of ‘barely educated primary school boys,’ boys who dream of upward mobility make them ripe for mercenary recruitment.” (page 144)

In Nigeria language helps to keep the working class down. It is used as a means of oppression. The use of Big English by the upper class is an almost insurmountable obstacle for most impoverished Nigerians, who besides their own language can only express themselves in the Rotten variety of English. But Rotten English should not be seen as an inferior language. Michael North, author of the book Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy: The Politics of Rotten English, sees Rotten English as a promise of “cross-ethnic African communicates in a land riven by ethnic and linguistic divisionism”, but he also realizes that the forming of this language was “rotten with the untranslatable experiences of those the oil wealth had left behind”. So North acknowledges that Rotten English is a language that was born out of strife and oppression. North just wants to bring the advantage of such a universal language to the front. “Rotten English is the language used between people who are away from their homeland speaking to those with whom they have no close ties of culture or ethnic heritage.” (page 146) According to Apter, writer, poet and essayist James Baldwin agrees with North’s conclusion that Rotten English can be seen as a language in its own right:

“In arguing that Black English articulates the ‘reality’ of racial and ethnic oppression…Baldwin makes his case for seeing Black English as its own language, wearing its stigmas of ungrammaticality like a proud badge, and refusing classification by white grammarians as ‘Black Vernacular English’.”(page 148)

But how did this variety of English come into being? Apter quotes the great German literary critic Walter Benjamin to explain the existence of a lower class impoverished language. Benjamin was interested in the European working class languages like Cockney and those found in Brecht’s work.

“Leisure, even pride and arrogance, have given the language of the upper classes a certain independence and self-discipline. It is thus brought into opposition to its own social sphere. It turns against the masters, who misuse it to command, by seeking to command them, and refuses to serve their interests. The language of the subjected on the other hand , domination alone has stamped, so robbing them further of the justice promised by the unmutilated autonomous word to all those free enough to pronounce it without rancour.” (page 151, quoted from Walter Benjamin’s Minima Moralia, page 102)

Bringing the discussion out of Nigeria and into South Africa, South Africa has not one but two languages of the oppressors: Big English, to stay in the vernacular, and Afrikaans. This divides the country in what Apter calls translation zones. She says that the “idea of the translation zone corresponds in the terms of social engineering to regulated language parks, restricted areas of mixed use, demarcations of apartheid, cordons sanitaires” (page 6). These oppressive languages keep the lower classes out of the higher echelons of society forcing the working classes in a state of translation and adaptation. It is not the oppressor that learns the language of the oppressed, but vice versa. Apter explains that “translation becomes a means of repositioning the subject in the world and in history;… a way of denaturalizing citizens, taking them out of the comfort zone of national space, daily ritual, and pre-given domestic arrangements” (page 6). By forcing the oppressed to express themselves in a language that is not their own, the ruling class pushes them in a vulnerable position, limiting their ways of expression. This can be seen as natural censorship, robbing the oppressed of their means of expression. But who are the oppressors and the oppressed in In the Heart of the Country? This book, written before the end of Apartheid, deals with the concept of race relations. It is race that divides the ruling class from the oppressed. But what is race and how and why is it used in the world today?

Paul Gilroy explains in his book After Empire that the division between races is a political linguistic construct. He says:

“Race had been essential in the elaboration of nineteenth-century political anatomy. As the concept became properly scientific, it remained an important aspect of European geopolitics, in the transition towards a global predominance that was bolstered and legitimated by the transformative application of Darwin’s insights.” (pages 6-7)

Immanuel Kant

Gilroy claims that race is a western concept, aimed at debasing other cultures. Darwin’s theory of evolution was abused to achieve this goal, comparing other people and in particular the Africans with monkeys. This implies that the concept of race was not something that originated naturally.

“The antagonistic approach to identity pioneered by Michel Foucault could not accept that the appearance of a political language of race and its growing relationship to the administration and reproduction of governmental power were accidental developments.” (page 7)

The use of the term ‘political language’ is interesting and it ties Gilroy and Foucault’s ideas with that of Apter and Benjamin that power relations lie at the centre of the use of language. But who is the true perpetrator, the one that started it all? German philosopher Immanuel Kant is, according to Gilroy, the one who defined race in the dictionary of the languages of Master/Servant:

“The moment in which Kant compromised himself by associating the figure of the ‘Negro’ with stupidity and connecting differences in color to differences in mental capacity provides a useful symbolic marker. From that point on, race has been a cipher for the debasement of humanism and democracy.” (page 9)

Gilroy sees Kant’s idea of the ‘Negro’ as a starting point of race politics. Something that goes on till the present day. But how do these concepts of language, translation and race relate to the situation in South Africa and more specifically in In the Heart of the Country?

J.M. Coetzee’s novel is riddled with the language of power, in this case Afrikaans. The protagonist Magda is a lonely spinster who craves for acknowledgment from her father. Her father pays no attention to her, but to his new mistress, Klein-Anna. Magda kills her father and tries to run the farm herself, but she finds out that that does not solve her problem of loneliness. Julian Gitzen writes in his article “The Voice of History in the Novels of J.M. Coetzee” that two main characteristics of Coetzee’s work are the stress of solitude on the protagonists and the importance of language. In his novels it is the harsh reality of isolation that determines how his protagonists confront history. He quotes from In the Heart of the Country to stress his point: “It is not speech that makes man, but the speech of others.” (page 6, quoted from In the Heart of the Country, page 126) But Magda has someone to talk to, her servants Hendrik and Klein-Anna. But she feels no connection. She says that Klein-Anna is “oppressed particularly by my talk…As for her words, they come to me with dull reluctance” (page 6, quoted from In the Heart of the Country, page 113). A great example of Benjamin’s theory of the language of the oppressed. Language, while understood, seems a barrier. A detachment. But that detachment was not always there. For instance in In the Heart of the Country: “I grew up with the servants’ children. I spoke like one of them before I learned to speak like this” (page 7). This situation of equality could not last. On the same page she describes her detachment from her play friends. “I played their stick and stone games before I knew I could have a doll’s house with Father and Mother and Peter and Jane asleep in their own beds…” (page 7) This shows that Magda realizes that the she was taught that the servants were different from her. Magda could have toys of her own, making her position in the household a privileged one.

Magda, in her desire to change her life, kills her father, but killing the person in power does not change the construct of power. James Wholpart says in his essay “A (Sub)Version of the Language of Power: Narrative and Narrative Technique in J.M. Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country”, that the reason the power construct has not changed is related to language. “Because the dominant ideology, the ideology of power, is encoded into language, Magda finds herself incapable of subverting that ideology” (page 220). This explains the oppression that Klein-Anna feels when Magda talks to her. In chapter 203, page 111, Magda feels uncomfortable to be called Miss so she asks Anna whether she would like to call her simply Magda instead. Magda says that it is strange to be called Miss, considering that is not her name. The minister baptised her as Magda, not as Miss Magda or Johannes as Baas Johannes. Magda does not realize that her example is very wrong. In the Apartheid state of South Africa a white person is born with incredible privileges, with far more rights than any black person. The problem with Magda is that she wants the privileges of the ruling class, without being confronted with the fact that she is part of an oppressing elite.

Magda realizes the power of the Master/Servant language when she has to get Hendrik to get rid of her father’s body.

“Magda comes to understand very slowly, however, that the destruction of the old order, symbolized in her father, will not allow any subversion of the ideology of power because that ideology is already encoded into language. Indeed, immediately after killing the father, Magda finds that she must revert to the master/slave discourse with both Hendrik and Anna…She concludes: “When one truly means what one says, when one speaks not in shouts of panic, but quietly. Deliberately decisively, then one is understood and obeyed. How pleasing to have identified a universal truth.” (pages 221-222, quoted from In the Heart of the Country, page 68)

Magda again does not realize that she has an entire power system to support her. The Apartheid system makes this discourse possible. Both Hendrik and Anna are products of this system. If they do not obey, they will be punished. Magda in her turn is a product of her father and the privileged white milieu controlling the state. The system works through all of them and although Magda wants to escape some aspects of that system, it does not go away simply because the last representative of the ruling power, being the white male, is killed. Someone has to fill the void. In South Africa under Apartheid, the notion of white male leadership was idealized. But in the hierarchy it was more important to be white than male. According to that hierarchical system Magda has to fill the void before Hendrik steps up and takes the power away from her.

J.M. Coetzee
(photo by Mariusz Kubik)

The language of power defines In the Heart of the Country. Coetzee shows what happens when power relations are defined by, among other things, linguistic differences. Speaking Big English or Afrikaans can make a career and speaking Rotten English or any pidgin language can hamper the way people can express themselves. In a society that is divided by racial differences, these language barriers deepen the differences between people, making understanding each other very difficult. These findings put new meaning in what Nelson Mandela, a victim of the language of power, said about language and how it can be used to speak to people. He wants language to unite and not divide. South Africa still has many struggles ahead of it, but let’s hope Mandela’s words ring true in every heart.



Works Cited

Apter, Emily. The Translation Zone. New Jersey: Princeton UP. 2006. Print.

Berkely, George. “Idealism.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. 21 Apr. 2011.

Coetzee, J.M.. In the Heart of the Country. London: Vintage Books, 2004.    Print.

Gilroy, Paul. After Empire. Oxon. Routledge. 2004. Print.

Gitzen, Julian. “The Voice of History in the Novels of J.M. Coetzee.” Critique. Fall 1993, Vol. XXXV. No.1. Web. . 21 Apr. 2011

Mandela, Nelson. “Moving Words.” BBC World Service. BBC, 2011. Web. 21 April. 2011.

Wholpart, James, “A (Sub)Version of the Language of Power: Narrative and Narrative Technique in J.M. Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country,” Critique. Summer 1994, Vol. XXXV. No. 4. Web. .21 Apr. 2011