“Slow Man” is a novel of a great hope but also one of great human complexity. It is a book which describes the importance of suffering, and what we should learn from it. South African Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee, begin his novel by having Paul Rayment, a sixty year old man “without dependents” hit by a car while out on a bike ride. The crash is described without embellishment illustrating how the human body simply resigns in front of the pain.
“The blow catches him from the right, sharp and surprising and painful….lifting him up off the bicycle.”
Afterwards, he finds himself an amputee, apparently doomed to a limited life in his flat in Adelaide Australia (Coetzee emigrate in 2002 in Australia). The doctors recommended prosthesis, but Rayment stubbornly disagrees. He does not want prosthesis; nothing that is fake or artificial is attached to his body. He is in disbelief, and he wants an explanation, a motive for this accident. He wants his leg back together with his comfortable, uncomplicated life. The old one is gone, and Paul feels lost in transition; the new one merely could be describing, Paul considers, for what is to come: “for losing everything.” Will he accept the transition to the other part of the life? Rayment, as described by Coetzee, is in dismay and unbalanced. Contemplating to what was in place and what is left does not seem to be an option. His indignation toward his condition grew bigger, and soon he became intolerable.
“So young and yet so heartless! He cries to himself. How did I come to fall into their hands? Better for the old to tend the old, the dying the dying! And what folly to be so alone in the world!”
Paul Rayment is a divorced and childless photographer and photo activist; nothing exceptional. He leads a solitary life and nothing dramatic or important seems to change its course. He is English by language and French by birth; time has made him Australian. In his adulthood Rayment – “rhyming with vraiment, the French word which means truly, honestly really” – tried to repatriate to France but once there, he instantly felt unwelcoming “they called me l’Anglais.” He has a collection of vintage images of indigenous Australians, those families who, unlike him, belong to a particular place. However, he admits that his valuable photographs have lost their uniqueness in the new era of digital photography.
Coetzee’s character has a strong personality, wants to be observed, cared of, and assured that there is something left for him to live though does not seem to be a character of joy. The accident changes totally his perspective of life. With no one to take care of him, he must rely on social workers. He has some friends but “he does not want to be seen in his new, curtailed, humiliating, and humiliated state.”
The life that is yet to unfold Paul describes it as a strive to answer the questions that come with it. “Why not this? Why not that?” The nurse he hired, Sheena, it turns to be a disaster. “She calls the bedpan the potty; she calls his penis his willie.”
A new nurse finally arrives, bearing the name of Marijana Jokic. An educated, hard-working Croatian emigrant who respects his need for privacy and treats him as an adult. She is remarkably gentle and proves to be good at the therapeutic massage he needs.
“By intuition pure and simple she seems to know how he feels, how his body will respond.”
What Marijana gives him back is a sense of balance and hope. He never knew if he is a man of passion, but he desperately falls for her, just to understand afterwards (and she knows) that is just a cliche.
And here Coetzee introduces the drama. Rayment declares his love in his out of the character way, involving promises of money. Marijana Jokic has a family of her own trying to make it in Australia and, still beautiful, seems unlikely to fall for a grumpy, unhappy old bachelor. Rayment has an old flame, certainly from his earlier world, Margaret, who wants him back with or without the leg. He dismisses her instead.
There is no real relationship between Paul and Marijana, but rather a symbolic connection. He dreams about winning Marijana’s heart, caring for her children, “He wants to take care of them, protect them and save them” even serving as her “co-husband,” even a platonic one. In Coetzee’s writing, however, is more or less plausible. Despite being so apart, they do have something in common and the author subtly let us discover throughout the book: the life uprooted them both in different time and circumstances, and now, they found themselves in search of each other in an unaccustomed place. Marijana was an art restorer in her native Croatia before immigrated to Australia. Her determination to try best on this estrange continent for the sake of her children caught Rayment attention. “In Australia you start zero,” Marijana tells him. “Zero history, you understand?”
Rayment feels lost and confused on his search for a “home”, a term described by him as a very English concept.
“I have always found it a very English concept, home. Hearth and home, say the English. To them, home is the place where the fires burns in the hearth, where you come to warm yourself.” But “I seem to be cold wherever I go.”
Coetzee connects the character silently with more or less involvement which gives the narration a sinister elegance. However, he sacrifices his characters for his ideas about love and care as well as leaving a trace in the world.
In the middle of this, a woman appears,named Elizabeth Costello, the main character from Coetzee’s previous novel. At some point in the story Rayment asks her:
“Are you real?” “I eat, I sleep, I suffer, I go to bathroom. I catch cold. Of course I am real. I am as real as you, “Costello responds.
A writer herself, she is unknown to Rayment; a woman caring her own enigma, sleeping in the park who was married to a Frenchman once. She seems to come just in time to prevent Paul of another fall: his unsuitable passion. Rayment does not seem to care as he finds her attitude rather overwhelming. She seems to know a lot about him: the accident, the unsuitable love, details of Marijana’s life that Rayment was not aware of. She proceeded to interfere offering him advice to the “Slow Man” to do something to emerge from his tortoiseshell:
“Remember, Paul, it is passion that makes the world go around….Give it a whirl, Paul. See what you can come up with.”
“See what I can come up with so that you can put me in a book.” She thinks that he is book-worthy despite his ordinary man he is. “So that someone somewhere might put you in a book. So that someone might want to put you in a book. Someone, anyone – not just me. So that you may be worth putting in a book. Alongside Alonso and Emma. Become major, Paul. Live like a hero. That is what the classics teach us. Be a main character. Otherwise what is life for?”
She even arranges Paul with the mysterious blind woman, Marianna. However, it was her only successful attempt. Paul Rayment does not want to be arranged, and he does not want to be a hero either. He does not want to change or be a character in a story. Rayment wants his independent existence back. He will not follow Marijana, or Costello herself who, toward the end of the story, ask him to move in with her, as a companion. To Rayment, the proposal sounds more like an escape from his loneliness, or perhaps a wish of Costello of becoming his best “copine”.
“But right now he cannot help imagining what it would be like to kiss that mouth, with its dry, perhaps even withered lips and the trace of down above. Does companionate marriage include kissing? He drops his eyes; if he were less polite he would shudder.”
He refuses to embrace the possibility of another complication or he may just have had enough of his irritant guest.
All of these events unfolds with writer’s ability to expose them, and moves our attention toward things that we do not want to think about: the fragility of our lives and the loneliness of old age. “Slow Man” is a story of how it is to grow old, trying to find a place in the human community. It is a story of life unanswered questions and uncertainty, a sad one however. The author does not offer happy endings in “Slow Man”, but it seems remarkably bizarre and true. A great book, and highly recommended.