“Did you know that In the Heart of the Countrywould be about madness and patricide and so forth?” This was the question Coetzee’s character and young biographer, Vincent, asked the famous South African writer in Summertime (published 2009).
Given the way Coetzee chooses to employ his heroine in In the Heart of the Country published in 1977 by Penguin, one can understand why, perhaps, the question is asked. In the book, we meet Magda, who is both the narrator and main character in the story.
Magda’s father is widowed. After the death of his first wife (Magda’s mother), he seizes the opportunity to bring home a new bride. Early on, Magda, who clearly is displeased by his father’s decision, describes her step mother thus, “The new wife is a lazy big boned voluptuous feline woman…” (p1)
Magda’s narration, her thoughts and interpretations seem to give the bigger picture of an imaginative realism of a sort. Her voice – spoken in a lonely first person narrative – tells at one point of killing and burying her father. But, even as the story nears its end, we are not sure if that was so. In fact, it is unclear if Magda is not contradicting herself, mixing realism with idealism.
The book is set in South Africa, where Magda stays in a deep, remote farm with her father and his father’s servants (Hendrik and Anna). Magda is an unmarried woman who almost feels useless and lonely, and hopeless and desolate. At one point, she tells of her ‘unused body now dusty, dry, unsavoury.’ (p44). Magda’s lonely life – evidenced by her solitary walks, her talking to herself – is clear throughout the book. She yearns to have sex and Hendrik (who is her father’s servant and who is married to Klein-Anna), is the man she looks up to to fill the hole in her, the hole of which she is aware of. ‘I am… a farmgirl… not unaware that there is a hole between my legs that has never been filled.’ (p41)
Hendrik has seen and watched Magda. He knows that she is keen to have a man in her life. Everything Hendrik does with Magda, he tells his wife, Klein-Anna, who giggles at what she hears. And why must she not giggle – considering that Hendrik goes to the extreme of telling his wife about what Magda does when in bed, what she dreams of, her fear of him and above all, how she needs a man, a man who would turn her into a woman:
“I am a child,” she tells him, “Despite my years, I am an old child, a sinister old child full of stale juices. Someone should make a woman of me… , someone should make a hole in me to let the old juices run out.”(p86)
Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country is written in the form of a journal, and the numbered paragraphs span from one to two hundred and sixty-six. It is quite a complex book and sometimes confusing.