Friday, August 24, 2007


An extract from J M Coetzee's new book, Diary of a Bad Year, appeared in the NYRB for 10 July.

The Seven Samurai is a film in complete command of its medium yet naive enough to deal simply and directly with first things. Specifically it deals with the birth of the state, and it does so with Shakespearean clarity and comprehensiveness. In fact, what The Seven Samurai offers is no less than the Kurosawan theory of the origin of the state.

The story told in the film is of a village during a time of political disorder—a time when the state has in effect ceased to exist—and of the relations of the villagers with a troop of armed bandits. After years of descending upon the village like a storm, raping the women, killing those men who resist, and bearing away stored-up food supplies, the bandits hit on the idea of systematizing their visits, calling on the village just once a year to exact or extort tribute (tax). That is to say, the bandits cease being predators upon the village and become parasites instead.

One presumes that the bandits have other such "pacified" villages under their thumb, that they descend upon them in rotation, that in ensemble such villages constitute the bandits' tax base. Very likely they have to fight off rival bands for control of specific villages, although we see none of this in the film.

The bandits have not yet begun to live among their subjects, having their wants taken care of day by day—that is to say, they have not yet turned the villagers into a slave population. Kurosawa is thus laying out for our consideration a very early stage in the growth of the state.

[For those unfamiliar with the film in question, what actually happens is this:

A group of bandits gallop to the top of a hill overlooking a village. One says something like: Let's attack! The leader says: No, we raided them in the autumn. There's nothing there. Let's come back after the rice harvest.

The bandits gallop off. Two peasants who have been hiding in the bushes go back to the village to share the bad news.

At the risk of stating the obvious, not only do we see nothing in the film of the bandits fighting rival bands for control of specific villages, we also see nothing of the system of "pacified" villages descended upon in rotation. The political philosophy is the product of Mr Coetzee's unfevered imagination.]

The main action of the film starts when the villagers conceive a plan of hiring their own band of hard men, the seven unemployed samurai of the title, to protect them from the bandits. The plan works, the bandits are defeated (the body of the film is taken up with skirmishes and battles), the samurai are victorious. Having seen how the protection and extortion system works, the samurai band, the new parasites, make an offer to the villagers: they will, at a price, take the village under their wing, that is to say, will take the place of the bandits. But in a rather wishful ending the villagers decline: they ask the samurai to leave, and the samurai comply.

Having seen how the protection and extortion system works??????? The new parasites????? offer, at a price, to take the village under their wing???????

The bandits started out with a band of 40. The samurai start out as a band of (the title of the film is a useful aide-memoire) 7. 4 die. 7 - 4 = 3.

During the recruitment of the samurai Kurosawa goes to a great deal of trouble to emphasise that the band is really too small for the job; 7 is not enough. Given that premise, it would have been ludicrous for 3 to propose themselves as protectors against any further marauding bandits who might happen to come along. Emphasis is also placed on the fact that the farmers are unable to pay: they can offer nothing but food. It would have been equally ludicrous for the samurai to offer to stay "for a price" when the point is made repeatedly that what the farmers have to offer is not worth the risk. If Kurosawa had introduced the development proposed by Coetzee he would have thrown away the moral and practical difficulties which he had placed at the centre of the film. Unsurprisingly, he did nothing of the kind.

2 of the 4 killed die in the final battle, a last stand in the mud and the rain. The master swordsman is killed by a bullet from a hidden bandit. The impostor, Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), tracks the bandit down; he is shot in the stomach but manages to kill the bandit. The young aristocrat, Katsushiro, rushes wildly through the rain, shouting Where are the bandits, where are the bandits -- and is told they're all dead, there are none left to kill. He sinks to his knees, howling, in the mud. This is, of course, a splendid opportunity for Kurosawa to share with us his thoughts on Hobbes, but he passes. For reasons best known to himself, he, um, cuts to a scene of the villagers planting rice shoots. Kambei: We lose again. The remaining 3 samurai look up at the mound where their comrades are buried.

Coetzee is ascribing to Kurosawa an artistic practice which is, in fact, highly characteristic of his own work: a propensity to substitute philosophical discourse for attention to plot and character. This is the sort of thing that goes down well with the Nobel Committee, who do dearly love worthy books that tackle Big Issues -- but it is not Kurosawa.

Coetzee's summary ("band of hard men", "unemployed samurai") misses out precisely the resistance to stereotype through attention to detail which is one of Kurosawa's hallmarks. Kikuchiyo is not a samurai; he's a farmer's son who picked up a sword and decided he liked swaggering around with it. Katsushiro comes from an old samurai family, but he has never killed a man. Heihachi is found chopping wood; he attributes his survival to the fact that, "since you can't kill them all, I usually run away." Kyuzo, the master swordsman, "isn't interested in killing people, he just wants to perfect his art." Rikichi, the farmer who first wants to fight the bandits, is as brave and reckless as Kikuchiyo -- but he doesn't force his way into the band of samurai. The question of what it means to be a warrior, of who is entitled to fight, is explored in one episode after another. (It would be easy to go on at very great length.)

This is an example which shows exactly what an editor might contribute to a book, and why the common practice of selling books to editors with no relevant knowledge is so damaging. The Last Samurai was acquired in the US and the UK by two editors who had never seen Seven Samurai, and who saw no need to do so before commenting on the manuscript. It's possible, of course, that Coetzee's editor knew the film well, objected to this nonsense, and was stonewalled by the author. It's more likely, I can't help feeling, that the editor hadn't seen the film and assumed Coetzee knew what he was talking about. When I was discussing possible publishers of Your Name Here with my last agent, Warren Frazier, I said I would like to talk to editors who knew at least some of the films and books that had inspired it (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita were the most important films, there were rather a lot of books); he either didn't know or wouldn't tell me.

Well, well, well. There's a book by Agatha Christie of which I remember nothing but the title: Why Didn't They Ask Evans? What can I say? Why didn't you ask Evans, Mr Coetzee? Why didn't you ask Evans?

[A reader comments that the views appear in essays by a character and may not be Coetzee's; that C would be unlikely to make such mistakes about so well-known a film. Yes; it may be that the views of the JC in the book are not those of JC. On the second point, though, people often seem to allow memory to rewrite SS long after they've seen it, sometimes influenced by better familiarity with The Magnificent Seven. (JC's comment about the band of hard men, for instance, makes better sense if we think of TMS, which simply gets rid of the character of the young aristocrat who has never fought before, transferring his love interest to the Horst Buchholz character based on Kikuchiyo. My own memory of TMS is a bit vague, but I also seem to remember that it keeps the wood-chopping episode but transfers it to Charles Bronson, getting rid of Heihachi's line about usually running away. [Could be wrong about this.]) So it may be, in fact, that the mistakes mentioned are not JC's; on the other hand, they are not unimaginable as misrememberings of a film seen long ago.]


Jenny Davidson said...

Interestingly (at least in my long-ago dim memory of it--this may be slightly garbled) the title of that Agatha Christie novel alludes to a (presumably imaginary) film, i.e. the detective within the novel remembers having seen a thriller that provoked him to ask himself (as one does about badly plotted thrillers) "Why didn't they ask Evans?" and then applies the insight to the real-life problem of detection that faces him.

I think it is allowable in fiction to have very skewed accounts of well-known works of art, but they would usually have to be associated with a distinct character's point of view, or else the perspective of some authorial persona--I share your dislike for that rather damaging aura of authority that comes from the tone of impartiality.

Helen DeWitt said...

This makes me want to reread Why Didn't They Ask Evans?

It would be possible, of course, for Coetzee to have a character who had spun a line in political philosophy and tacked it onto Seven Samurai. The excerpt didn't seem to have framed the comments in that way.

Jenny Davidson said...

I'm glad you posted about this BTW, I was actually wondering as I read it a couple weeks ago what you would think! I thought at the time that Coetzee sounds rather like Vico, there is something demented and implacable about the tone of his account! But perhaps this is partly a matter of (stylistic) style rather than (intellectual) style--i.e. it also sounds NOT like Adam Smith in his published writings but very much like the abbreviated/elliptical Adam Smith of the lecture notes on astronomy and belles-lettres and such--an unintended consequence as it were of Coetzee's increasingly elliptical mode of writing.

Lee said...

From what I've read about the novel, it may be precipitous to assume these are Coetzee's own views; the NYRB excerpts are from essays written by the main character. See this piece:,,25339-2648841,00.html

And I do think it highly unlikely that Coetzee would make such fundamental mistakes about what is, after all, a very well-known and thoroughly analysed film. At the very least I'd prefer to suspend judgement before reading the novel in its entirety.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. Exactly my sentiment:

"This is, of course, a splendid opportunity for Kurosawa to share with us his thoughts on Hobbes, but he passes. For reasons best known to himself, he, um, cuts to a scene of the villagers planting rice shoots. Kambei: We lose again. The remaining 3 samurai look up at the mound where their comrades are buried.

Coetzee is ascribing to Kurosawa an artistic practice which is, in fact, highly characteristic of his own work: a propensity to substitute philosophical discourse for attention to plot and character... but it is not Kurosawa."

The thing that bothered me with Coetzee's whole copy & paste fiction/essay in NYRB was that he was trying to channel Kafka, Hobbes, & perhaps a good deal of the Frankfurt School pessimism and ALSO tried to shoehorn Kurosawa in there. How come fiction isn't good enough anymore for all these smart writers?

Lee said...

SD, I haven't read this novel yet, so I can't possibly comment any further on Coetzee's protagonist based on a very meagre excerpt, but in many of his other novels he certainly pays attention to plot and character (obviously in varying degrees): I like to look at an author's whole body of work. And I disagree violently that philosophy, or science, or exposition, or whatever doesn't necessarily belong in fiction. Fiction is what we define it to be, and when it works, it works.

Anonymous said...

Lee. You're putting words into my mouth. I never said philosophy and science don't belong in fiction. If you read my blog or attend the interviews I conduct with writers, you'll see that my predilection is precisely for the writers who embrace and incorporate philosophy and science into their work. My comment was for Coetzee's recent formal experimentation with fiction, as he's trying to incorporate the essay form more and more. For example, there are moments in his Elizabeth Costello works that are simply brilliant, but are they great works of fiction? I would say not. And if the NYRB excerpt gives us any indication, this new variation on fiction/essay seems too clunky to me... even more unsuccessful formally than his Liz Costello pieces.

I think you're ultimately right, though, in saying we should reserve our judgment until we see the final work. But the excerpt does have a unity of thought the writer tries to convey, at least on the State and the individual's relationship to it. I found it mildly interesting, but hardly original, yes? What do we gain from reading the excerpt that we couldn't from Kafka's The Castle? More to the point, why are Kafka's thoughts (or even Sebald's, for example) more convincing than Coetzee's recent work to me? Because they found a way to integrate their philosophy into their work that resonates in me - as fiction, as thought, harmoniously. Let's see if Coetzee has also found his way, too.

Mithridates said...

JD: Don't you enjoy Viconian dimentia? Vico admits that he might be cracked in his Autobiography when he describes falling out of a tree, I think, and cracking his head open....

Lee: I'd like to engage you in some friendly debate. I agree with you that nothing should be banned from the novel, absolutely--but I'm not sure that this is what Ithaca and SD are saying exactly. I take them to be saying that, for Coetzee or perhaps for his persona, the ideas of the philosophers take precedence over those of Kurosawa. Kurosawa's work isn't merely an occasion to discuss, on a probably pretty superficial level, the works of other people (e.g. Hobbes, the Frankfurters as I like to call them, etc.). I can't imagine Ithaca, for example, would excoriate someone merely for using ideas from philosophy, science, or any other discipline that is not strictly "literary" (open LS at random and you'll find math problems, references to Dawkins and evolution, Schonberg's theoretical writings, and so on, not to mention all the Greek, Japanese, and other languages); I think Ithaca's point is that, in Coetzee's work, the elements of plot and character get ECLIPSED by the ideas, they suffer as a result of his engagement with ideas. Having read four Coetzee novels, not the entire oeuvre admittedly, I have to agree that his fictions can be awfully anemic, that allegory and abstraction often leach the life out of his stories.

I also wonder about when it's appropriate to criticize an author's work. Your point about Coetzee's piece being an excerpt is of course well taken. But I wonder whether, if the author is going to publish his work in journals and magazines, and in the NYRB no less (which, strangely, hasn't solicited me just yet; maybe my old phone number's listed in the yellow pages...), not merely as a TEASE for his next big novel, as essentially an advertisement, but in the belief that this piece is self-contained, that although it is part of a larger work it speaks for itself on some level--I wonder whether we're not allowed to judge the piece as a self-contained work. What good is it to publish a piece without the proper framework for understanding it? Why take something out of the context that you yourself worked so hard to give it and then publish it on its own? Perhaps there are cues within the piece that let us know that Coetzee's persona's cuckoo--but they MUST be there in order for the piece to be coherent at all. I don't see those cues, really, though I admit I might have missed something. If they are meant to be a satire on the views of person who has little understanding of a film - although why this needs to be excerpted and shown to the public or published in any form at all is frankly beyond me, there being more pressing and, well, just more interesting issues out there in my view - then the piece should contain the clues necessary for us to figure that out.

I'd love to hear your response to this. You can of course yell at me on my blog as well!!

Jenny Davidson said...

M: Yes to the notion that it's fair to judge the published piece as a self-contained work; and yes, of course I do enjoy Viconian dementia very much, and though I was dissenting from a number of aspects of the JC piece as I read it, I did enjoy it very much!

L: What I really loved about Helen's initial post (H, sorry to speak about you on your own blog in the 3rd person!) is that this is to me the style of intellectual/critical thinking at its most purely enjoyable. A piece published in a newspaper or magazine or whatever has to be responsible, has to be steady, has to take into account on some level all the author's published writings, etc. etc. But this is why conversation is ultimately for me so much superior to published critical writing as a way of interacting with books and ideas. It is dynamic, it is intellectually hyper-charged, it involves taking a position (sometimes an unreasonable one, I like it best when I am just ranting or raving about something... like why I do not like David Mitchell's fiction, but on the basis of having read only one of his novels!), it is more imaginative and more intense than the more formal modes of criticism, and it's what blogs are great for. It's more like what happens at midnight when you and your 3 favorite literary interlocutors are sitting in a bar having an argument about Kafka than what happens in the needlessly sedate pages of the NYRB! It does not offer itself as a critical judgment of the kind that you're implicitly both expecting and taking issue with in your comment, it is more a thing in itself worth contemplating for its own insights rather than solely or primarily as a permanent aesthetic judgment about a piece of Coetzee's.... in fact the playfulness (high-stakes play) of passionate disagreement is one of the great pleasures in intellectual life...

all right, that's my 2 cents! must stop blogging and get back to work...

Lee said...

Oh dear, I'm not sure where to begin, but I'm entirely at one with Jenny that passionate disagreement is wonderful, which is why - ideally - I blog (aside from the 'small' matter of attracting readers to my online fiction). And Helen's blog does seem to be the ideal place to do so, though I feel a bit challenged by the level of discourse here, and my own failings and limitations.

J: I'm trying to decide whether you're right that I both expect and take issue with critical judgement, or even if this is implicitly a contradiction - maybe different sorts? But of course I understand what you mean about Helen's post being a thing-in-itself, yet she is quite harsh towards Coetzee. I suppose I'd just like to cut him more slack, in part because I've enjoyed his work years and years before the Nobel Committee (see below about Africa).

Helen, at some point I ought to put you in touch with my elder daughter, who's studying film in Potsdam (and lives in Berlin). She originally intended to learn Japanese for an internship in Tokyo, but now has opted for an offer she couldn't refuse in Germany. You two will have a lot to say to each other, I suspect, about Kurosawa, and also the other films you mention with regard to Your Name Here, though from very different perspectives!

SD, I take your point about making assumptions and will try to have a good look at your blog. Again, I suspect that originality of thought about the State/the individual's relationship to it may be precisely what Coetzee is not trying to offer. But I freely admit that I may be way off base here! Your position, I think, implies that the narrator and Coetzee are identical. Or am I wrong? (BTW, I lived for 18 years in Zimbabwe, and the mention of animals/identity papers has a particular resonance for those who've had some experience of South Africa.)

SD, have you written about EC over at your blog? Why you don't like a lot of it, or at least think it unsuccessful?

Mith, I'm more than happy to engage with you, though I can't argue on your level philosophically. However. I don't agree about Coetzee's work and find many of the novels - if not all in equal measure - strong on character, and some on plot. But then, to be fair, plot doesn't interest me very much. And allegory certainly has its place. But Disgrace anaemic?

(I've read The Last Samurai, so I know what it contains.)

The whole question of excerpts is interesting, but can we go into it another time? I really must get back to the sentence which has been plaguing me all afternoon. Also about these excerpts in particular.

Helen makes a good point about misremembered films, and it might be interesting to see if in fact the protagonist is the one who's misremembering - sheer speculation, on my part, of course, and I'm beginning to feel like one of those Harry Potter fans who spent a lot of time imagining what would happen in Book 7 before the Hour of Release.

Helen DeWitt said...

Just back from Rostock on the Baltic.

I don't mean to slate films or works of fiction that have a strong theoretical bent -- or, for that matter, to take issue with analysing philosophical issues raised by a work that does not make them explicit. JC's narrator did seem to be seeing concerns in Seven Samurai for which the film offers no evidence. One can certainly have characters who have strongly biased understandings of works of art which are not endorsed by the author; it wasn't clear that this was what JC was doing, though perhaps it was.

JC's alternation in this piece between essay and events struck me as an interesting device. As far as Seven Samurai goes, though, the genius is in the details, so I was impatient with a summary that gave the details so little attention.

Mithridates said...

Oh Ithaca, look what thou hast wrought! I love it. I should apologize for speaking for others, however, given that, um, they seem to speak for themselves, not surprisingly, much better.

JD: Glad we both like dimentia. And that's one of the great things about fiction--that you can dissent from pretty much everything in it and still enjoy it.

Lee: I have absolutely no philosophy background whatsoever, except whatever I've picked it up in my undisciplined independent book-grazing over the years. But I'm glad I fooled you. I waver about Disgrace, which is certainly a formidable performance, but, well, OK, maybe I should just reread it before I say anything I can't defend. My favorite among the JC novels I've read is The Master of Petersburg. Which probably had very little to do with why he's now a Nobel laureate. Love to chat more with you about this!!

Lee said...

'JC's alternation in this piece between essay and events struck me as an interesting device.'

This is precisely what fascinates me as well. Even if the innovative isn't particularly successful, it can give rise to later work, often by others, which is.

Jenny Davidson said...

Two further links:

Elizabeth Lowry on Coetzee at the TLS (pro),,25339-2648841,00.html

Adam Mars-Jones at the Guardian (con),,2156253,00.html

Lee said...

Here's another: