An interviewer for the London Sunday Times once praised the acclaimed Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau for breathing some much-needed life into his instrument. The piano, the interviewer said, was “the most machinelike of instruments—all those rods, levers, little felt pads, wires, no intimate subtle human connection with it by breath, tonguing, or the string player’s direct engagement with speaking vibrations.” Arrau’s playing transmitted the sensation of touch, each note like a finger pressing down on the spine, relieving the tension of the day. Admirers of the musician often described his talent in bodily terms, reaching for physical metaphors to explain his interpretive gifts. The Argentinean-born conductor Daniel Barenboim said of Arrau, “The music really goes into his bones and his blood.”
In “The Pole,” the new novel by the South African writer J. M. Coetzee, Arrau has another fan in the character of Beatriz, a fortysomething socialite. But what does she know? The wife of a wealthy Spanish banker, Beatriz volunteers with the Concert Circle, a cultural foundation that hosts monthly recitals in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. She has been let in because of her ample free time and her impressive Rolodex, not her ear. As the book opens, the “rather staid” board has flown a Polish pianist in his seventies from Berlin to perform works by Frédéric Chopin, another Polish musician adrift outside his homeland. The man’s name, Witold Walczykiewicz, “has so many w’s and z’s in it,” the narrator explains, that “no one on the board even tries to pronounce it. They refer to him simply as ‘the Pole.’ ”
Witold’s recent concert in London was well reviewed. A critic praised him for his pared-down interpretation of Chopin. Beatriz prefers the Chopin of Arrau, but she supposes that her opinion reveals a defect in taste. Arrau, after all, is not Polish. “So perhaps there was something he was deaf to,” she muses. “Some feature of the mystery of Chopin that foreigners will never understand.” She is part of an audience that crowds into Sala Mompou (named for Federico Mompou, a Catalan composer influenced by Chopin) to hear “Chopin played by a real Pole.” They are sure that Witold, more than anyone—certainly more than a Chilean born on the opposite side of the world—will have the music in his bones and blood.
Like someone who arrives in a country she has seen only in movies and on postcards, Beatriz is disappointed by the real thing. Whereas Arrau transported her “into the drawing room of a great old country house in the remote Polish plains, with a long summer’s day wheeling to an end,” Witold has left her unmoved in every sense. She has travelled nowhere. Coetzee slyly re-creates that effect in “The Pole,” giving readers little in the way of escapist details about Barcelona. There are no gaudy mentions of Gaudi or knowing references to vermouth hour; the Circle takes Witold out for an Italian meal, not for tapas. Beatriz and the pianist converse briefly in stilted English, neither’s first choice of language. The incoherence is adjacent to silence, as Coetzee pushes his signature sparseness to the limits of intelligibility. When Beatriz accompanies Witold on the drive back from dinner, though they sit side by side, they say nothing. Yet, as she will soon realize, Witold is a musician; his job is to fill empty space with sound.
A week after his visit, he sends her a recording of his playing, along with a flirtatious note “to the angel who watched over me in Barcelona.” Then, months later, he sends word that he is back in Spain, in the nearby city of Girona, and invites her to visit. “I will meet the train at any hour,” he writes.
Beatriz is puzzled. Was her English worse than she thought? What else could explain such a misfire of signals? But she had said so little! Surely a loss for words shielded one from misunderstandings. She tells herself that she has no time for “circumlocutions, word games, veiled meanings.” But Beatriz is a lady of leisure, with plenty of spare time. And it’s hard to step away from a puzzle once you’ve started it. “Why are you here, Witold?” Beatriz writes. “I am here for you,” he replies. What does “here” mean?, she wonders. Is she meant to meet him? Or perhaps “he is here for her as one is in a church for God?”
“Here” is a complicated concept for Coetzee, born in Cape Town, educated in Texas, and for the past twenty years a resident of Australia. Readers seeking an unalloyed South African voice prepared to deliver them into a township have often found themselves as disappointed as Beatriz was by Witold’s performance. Coetzee’s early novel “Waiting for the Barbarians” (1980) was set in an unspecified realm, referred to as simply “the Empire,” which only obliquely represented the realities of apartheid South Africa. He followed it with “Life & Times of Michael K” (1983), set in a fictitious South Africa, amid a civil war. The action of “Foe” (1986), a reimagining of “Robinson Crusoe,” was scattered across Brazil, Portugal, England, and the remote island first envisioned by Daniel Defoe.
Though Coetzee’s enchanting, austere English (not unlike Witold’s “hard, percussive” Chopin) immediately distinguished him as an undeniable talent, some post-colonial scholars regarded his use of allegory as toothless abstraction. It did not help when, in 1994, as the country was electing its first Black President in Nelson Mandela, Coetzee—perhaps South Africa’s most celebrated author—published “The Master of Petersburg,” a novel set in nineteenth-century Russia.
Coetzee, for his part, balked at the notion that he had an obligation to play the role of national author. In an interview from 1983, he blamed a “wholly ideological superstructure constituted by publishing, reviewing and criticism that is forcing on me the fate of being a ‘South African novelist.’ ” To him, wanting a South African author to write about South African politics is a bit like wanting a Polish pianist to perform Chopin. It was a convenient position for a white South African writer to take, yes, but Coetzee correctly identified a pressure felt by many artists—both nonwhite and those whose whiteness can read as exotic on the global stage, such as Afrikaner or Eastern European—to represent a specific “here” for the world out there.
With “The Pole,” Coetzee muddies the waters of national purity with his trademark clarity. The book, written in English, originally appeared in a Spanish-language translation, with the title “El Polaco,” as if to leave those of us tasked with identifying “the original” tongue-tied. Coetzee had done the same with “The Death of Jesus” (2019), releasing the Spanish translation first. It was part of his campaign to “resist the hegemony of the English language,” as he told audiences at the 2018 Hay Festival in Cartagena.
From its title, one might expect “The Pole” to tangle with the particulars of Witold’s national identity. Instead, the book approaches the politics of Polishness in true Coetzee fashion: with elegant elision, at such an angle as to be almost imperceptible. The novel opens in 2015, the year that Law and Justice, a right-wing party that ran on a platform of Polish nationalism, came to power, but you would never know this fact from the pages of “The Pole.” A Circle board member, joining Beatriz and Witold for dinner after the recital, asks the visitor, “How are affairs in your country nowadays? I remember the good Pope, he was from there, was he not? John Paul.” Witold is evasive. “The Pole seems reluctant to be drawn,” the narrator, whose perspective is often hard to distinguish from Beatriz’s, notes. It’s for the best; one cannot imagine members of the Circle, who have hosted Witold so that they could see a real Pole play Chopin, being receptive to any misgivings about nationalism. And Witold, who leads the peripatetic life of a travelling artist, must serve as a local trinket, a curio, for the global flow of commerce.