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Published by: api-3767313 on Oct 16, 2008
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J. M. Coetzee
Secker & Warburg
Wer den Dichter will verstehen mu\u00df
in Dichters Lande gehen.
- Goethe
Chapter 1

He lives in a one-room flat near Mowbray railway station, for which he pays eleven guineas a
month. On the last working day of each month he catches the train in to the city, to Loop Street,
where A. & B. Levy, property agents, have their brass plate and tiny office. To Mr. B. Levy,
younger of the Levy brothers, he hands the envelope with the rent. Mr. Levy pours the money out
onto his cluttered desk and counts it. Grunting and sweating, he writes a receipt. "Voila, young
man!" he says, and passes it over with a flourish.

He is at pains not to be late with the rent because he is in the flat under false pretences. When he signed the lease and paid A. & B. Levy the deposit, he gave his occupation not as \u2018Student\u2019 but as \u2018Library Assistant,\u2019 with the university library as his work address.

It is not a lie, not entirely. From Monday to Friday it is his job to man the reading room during
evening hours. It is a job that the regular librarians, women for the most part, prefer not to do
because the campus, up on the mountainside, is too bleak and lonely at night. Even he feels a chill
down his spine as he unlocks the back door and gropes his way down a pitch-dark corridor to the
mains switch. It would be all too easy for some evildoer to hide in the stacks when the staff go
home at five o\u2019clock, then rifle the empty offices and wait in the dark to waylay him, the night
assistant, for his keys.

Few students make use of the evening opening; few are even aware of it. There is little for him
to do. The ten shillings per evening he earns is easy money.

Sometimes he imagines a beautiful girl in a white dress wandering into the reading room and
lingering distractedly after closing time; he imagines showing her over the mysteries of the
bindery and cataloguing room, then emerging with her into the starry night. It never happens.

Working in the library is not his only employment. On Wednesday afternoons he assists with
first-year tutorials in the Mathematics Department ( three pounds a week); on Fridays he conducts
the diploma students in drama through selected comedies of Shakespeare (two pounds ten); and in
the late afternoons he is employed by a cram school in Rondebosch to coach dummies for their
Matriculation exams(three shillings an hour). During vacations he works for the Municipality
(Division of Public Housing) extracting statistical data from household surveys. All in all, when he
adds up the monies, he is comfortably off \u2013 comfortably enough to pay his rent and university fees
and keep body and soul together and even save a little. He may only be nineteen but he is on his
own feet, dependent on one.

The needs of the body he treats as a matter of simple common sense. Every Sunday he boils up
marrowbones and beans and celery to make a big pot of soup, enough to last the week. On Friday
he visits Salt River market for a box of apples or guavas or whatever fruit is in season. Every
morning the milkman leaves a pint of milk on his doorstep. When he has a surplus of milk he
hangs it over the sink in an old nylon stocking and turns it into cheese. For the rest he buys bread
at the corner shop. It is a diet Rousseau would approve of, Or Plato. As for clothes, he has a good
jacket and trousers to wear to lectures. Otherwise he makes old clothes last.

He is proving something: that each man is an island; that you don\u2019t need parents.

Some evenings, trudging along the Main Road in raincoat and shorts and sandals, his hair
plastered flat by the rain, lit up by the headlights of passing cars, he has a sense of how odd he
looks. Not eccentric (there is some distinction in looking eccentric), just odd. He grinds his teeth
in chagrin and walks faster.

He is slim and loose limbed, yet at the same time flabby. He would like to be attractive but he knows he is not. There is something essential he lacks, some definition of feature. Something of the baby still lingers in him. How long before he will cease to be a baby? What will cure him of babyhood, make him into a man?

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