Seriously funny

When the South African novelist JM Coetzee agrees to a public appearance, it's a big deal.

JM Coetzee at the Worlds Literature Festival in the Norwich Playhouse, England, where the author broke away from his gloomy reputation and had the audience roaring with laughter.
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When the South African novelist JM Coetzee agrees to a public appearance, it's a big deal. After all, here is a literary recluse to rank alongside Cormac McCarthy and Harper Lee, who didn't even turn up to collect either of his two Booker Prizes. It's fair to say that the author of the shockingly bleak post-apartheid memoir Disgrace has a reputation as a rather gloomy, joyless figure; something that wasn't helped by Martin Amis, who, earlier this year, memorably said Coetzee's "whole style is predicated on transmitting absolutely no pleasure".

So laughs were the last thing anyone expected from his appearance at the Writers' Centre Worlds Literature Festival in Norwich last week. On an impressive bill with three other South African writers - Gabeba Baderoon, CJ Driver and Zoe Wicomb - didn't take the stage until after the interval, and when he did, read just one unpublished short story. He left almost as suddenly as he'd arrived. But for those 20 minutes, Coetzee had the audience roaring as he railed against the ridiculousness of the once-fertile Karoo area of South Africa, now only good for eco-tourism, and of a whole country's "light grade of sorryness".

His neat repetition of words and phrases were as adept as a stand-up comic's. Some were sure a smile had cracked his lips. It was, admittedly, a brief smile. A move into comic fiction is unlikely. But it was indicative of a gradual shift in Coetzee's frosty outlook towards a more amused - or perhaps bemused - attitude to life. In his current book Summertime, the fictional biographer of a writer also called Coetzee moans that his work lacks ambition. "Too cool, too neat, I would say. Too easy. Too lacking in passion." He probably allowed himself a grin when he wrote that, too.

But do people actually want South African authors to be serious? There's a perception that South African writers aren't meant to be funny. They're supposed to be political, gritty realists. Perhaps one of the great by-products of the World Cup is that it has transmitted an often-overlooked sense of joy in the country. At the very moment South Africa were beating France on the football pitch, Wicomb, Baderoon and Driver grappled with that very problem. There's a sense that the history of the country can be almost suffocating.

"I've been to quite a lot of literary festivals this year, and people still want to talk about apartheid. In 2010!" says Wicomb with a shake of her head. "Honestly, they don't know what else to ask us. It's like a nostalgia, in that it enables people to anchor the whole notion of why we write in their minds. "It's as if apartheid was this positive, enabling thing because it gave us the content we needed to create stories."

Wicomb's second novel, David's Story, takes place in 1991 and explores racial identity, but her recent collection of shorts, The One That Got Away, focuses on human relationships. The setting is important, but not overbearing. The poet Gabeba Baderoon, too, is more contemplative, less obviously political in her approach. It's the resonance of the situations her characters find themselves in that is crucial, rather than the specific discussion of race or poverty. But it's meant that she's also found the reaction to her work, at times, surprising.

"At my very first literature festival, in Germany, I was introduced as 'a South African writer who doesn't sound like a South African'," she remembers. "I was really taken aback because they weren't talking about my accent but my work, in that it doesn't explicitly reference apartheid. So it was almost like 'what is she doing, calling herself a South African writer?'. That can be so constricting. "Somebody asked me recently whether it would be possible to write a novel set in 1970s South Africa without mentioning apartheid. And of course it would be difficult and probably morally problematic. But for me, you don't have to specifically name it."

As a black South African Muslim, Baderoon is more aware than most that being labelled is not helpful, which is why her work - particularly her poem Play, Or, Watching A Film About Muslim Boys - is so thoughtful and open to interpretation. "You have to be alert to the nuances," she says. "Anyone who goes to Cape Town will have heard the call to prayer, and that's part of the landscape. But it's not separate, it's part of the larger tapestry.

"The broad expanse of our history includes the colonial period which brought Muslims to South Africa as slaves, and there are now good novels about that. My interest in representations of Islam takes in all that, the history, novels by Yvette Christiansë, plays from Nadia Davids. But it feels a very South African approach, not at all similar to the scenes in the US or the UK." It's this great depth of feeling about the country which connects all four writers at the Worlds Literature Festival, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact not one of them actually lives there today.

CJ Driver, who was placed in solitary confinement for his work with the anti-apartheid movement and whose early books were banned in South Africa, says he returns from England as often as he can. The short story Coetzee reads is an elegy for the old lifestyles of the Karoo, written in his new Australian home. Wicomb feels she can only write about South Africa, a place that she finds "incredible and moving", because she doesn't feel a sense of belonging in Scotland.

Gabeba Baderoon has lived all over the world but says she finds it "hard to attach myself to another piece of ground". Indeed, she's going back to Cape Town later this year, to begin a fellowship at the university and write a book. But it's left to CJ Driver to explain the magic of a country which, as Baderoon excitedly points out, is developing a palpably vibrant literary scene. "I look like an Englishman, and I even sound like one now. I have an English passport, an English wife and English children. But I dream about the Karoo and its expanses."

And so, it seems, does JM Coetzee. With, these days, just the hint of a smile. For more information visit