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By John Helmer, Moscow

In a time as testing for national liberation movements, and the ethics of armed struggle against race war, it is rare for the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature to publish a book as pretentious, wrong-headed, and silly as J.M. Coetzee’s The Pole.  But that’s exactly what the South African — one of just two from that country to have won the literature prize — has gone and done.

According to the Financial Times, it was the best book of the week which ended last Saturday, October 7. 

That was the day when the Palestinians achieved what the Arabs have been unable to do since the US and United Kingdom created the state of Israel on their way to annihilating every trace of secular nationalist leadership in Palestine and throughout the Arab world.

This is the process which the British began with their Balfour Declaration in 1917;  the US military began to implement in 1942, when General George Patton led allied forces ashore in Morocco and Algeria; and when President Franklin Roosevelt decided to ignore Arab resistance to the Jewish state at his meeting King Abdulaziz of Saudi on board the USS Quincy on February 14, 1945.

At centre, left to right: Colonel William Eddy, King Abdulaziz, President Roosevelt, February 14, 1945. Watch the film record, including Roosevelt’s meetings to follow on board the USS Quincy with Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and King Farouk of Egypt.  

Roosevelt had preceded the meeting with the assurance to his Jewish advisers at the White House that “Palestine should be for the Jews and no Arab should be in it.” He also told one of them he “could do anything that needed to be done with [the king] with a few million dollars.”

When he and Abdulaziz met on the deck of the cruiser, Roosevelt began by asking Abdulaziz what he thought should be done about the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. “Give the Jews the choicest lands and homes of the Germans who had oppressed them,” the king answered.

“But they have a sentimental desire to settle in Palestine”, Roosevelt said.

“Make the enemy and the oppressor pay,” Abdulaziz replied. “That is how we Arabs wage war . Amends should be made by the criminal, not by the innocent bystander. What injury have Arabs done to the Jews of Europe? It is the Christian Germans who stole their homes and lives. Let the Germans pay.”  It was incomprehensible to the bedouin, the king told the American interpreter, who did not translate for the president, that “friends [did not get from the Americans] more consideration than enemies.” He was angry.

Roosevelt then tried to pitch his bribe. If Abdulaziz agreed to Jewish settlement of Palestine, the US would pay Abdulaziz to resettle the Palestinians in Saudi Arabia, and enrich the king personally. This, Roosevelt added, would “increase the land under cultivation, decrease the desert, and provide living for a large population for a larger population of Arabs.”

Abdulaziz had had enough. “We are desert dwellers. My people do not like trees.” The Saudi kingdom would not consider “with any enthusiasm in the development of agriculture and public works if this prosperity would be inherited by the Jews.”*

The grandson of Abdulaziz, Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), now prime minister and de facto ruler of the Saudi kingdom, was contemplating the latest US bribe to accept the state of Israel when the Hamas attack began on October 7, pitching the entire Arab world into a fight against Israel’s plan to destroy the “human animals” — as Israel’s defence minister calls the Palestinians.   The Hamas attack has obliged MBS to follow his grandfather, repeating to Roosevelt’s successors in Washington that the Arabs don’t like trees; and that if they grow them they won’t allow them to be inherited by Jews.

Coetzee’s new book is a common or garden attempt to divert American and English readers from this new world, and contemplate instead what the blurb on the book cover calls “profound questions about love, romantic and unromantic, growing old, Heidegger, and how we relate to animals.”

Left: J.M. Coetzee, 83; right, the new book, published on July 4, 2023.

That was written by a Princeton University professor named Peter Singer who has made a tenured career advocating the superiority of animal liberation to human liberation. He too makes his living diverting readers from the wars of liberation which the Vietnamese, Iranians, and Afghans have won by defeating the US; which the Russians began to win a year ago; and which the Arabs have lost in Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Libya.

If the Princeton ethics of animal liberation don’t apply to human animals today, then not counting the US Air Force bomb tonnage which the Princeton ethics have dropped in the past on  Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Korea, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, what’s the intention of telling stories in which the morality of philosophers Martin Heidegger having orgasm inside Hannah Arendt, is combined with the immorality of killing soulful animals in laboratories and abattoirs?

Is the intention to divert or confuse, so that the moral philosopher may oblige himself and his followers not to wear leather shoes to work and to eat vegetable stew for lunch in the office cafeteria, while permitting himself to sign the orders or press the button to liquidate enemies for reasons of state and faith? If Coetzee and promoters like Singer are silent on the latter, is their advocacy of the former an endorsement of the idea that there are some animals who deserve to die – not chickens or goats, but human animals like Arabs or Russians?  Is their answer to Make Vegan Great Again?

Coetzee’s intention, the book makes plain, is to equalise soul value between cats, dogs, rabbits, chickens, pigs, goats, etc., and human beings like the Polish pianist, who forces himself on the fictional woman narrating the book’s title story.   As it turns out, the Pole does next to no talking to the woman.  In the climax of the tale, he climbs on top of her and with his “huge weight pressing down on her”, she says he says nothing, while she “helps him as best she can…but before long it is over”. The daylight hours are almost as heavy and unhelpful as the nighttime ones.

Professionally, the Pole is not much chop at Chopin; no better teaching Catalan students how to play Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto. He admits he is about to play concerts in Moscow and St. Petersburg, although the Russians don’t appreciate him. “No one,” he says, “regards me highly, nowhere in the world.”

This is also the Russian appreciation of Coetzee, especially since 1994 when he published a novel he titled The Master of St. Petersburg. It purports to be about Fyodor Dostoevsky. One Russian to review the book said: “Admirers of creativity and (especially) Dostoevsky’s persona will most likely be outraged by the book. Lovers of literature will simply be surprised – the book turned out to be pretentious and intentionally stuffy, although masterfully written.”  Another Russian to write about Coetzee concluded he “did not discover anything new”.  Both Russians doubted Coetzee had ever spent enough time in St Petersburg to understand what was going on around him.  Russia was nothing more than Coetzee’s projection, they thought.  They preferred, they wrote, that in his themes of violence, cruelty, suffering, injustice, and terrorism, he should stick to the South Africa where he is a native, and not Russia where he isn’t.

It’s clear from The Pole that outside South Africa, and the struggle there between the blacks and whites which Coetzee has left to live in Australia, Coetzee is in as much moral darkness as the musician poking his groupie; the animal liberation which the characters of his new book express is  clearer cut. Clear cut is also the preference of the Financial Times “for the author philosophising on ageing, on the act of writing in old age, and on man’s cruelty to animals…In The Pole, Coetzee forges an autofiction of contemplation, in which thought and inquiry take precedence over melodrama”.  

The Guardian claimed in its review: “Coetzee is uncommonly good at inhabiting people. His ability to do the same with animals is perhaps rarer still…one feels the torsions of language, compassion, race, existence and terror of which his dogs are both symbolic and real representation.”  

“In J.M. Coetzee’s new novel, love awakens an austere soul,” reported the New York Times last month, “The Pole explores romance, mortality and the tangled ways we communicate.”  

Can these three newspapers be so sensitive to such moral and mortal torsions, and at the same time function as propaganda platforms for hating, then killing Russians and now Palestinians?  Those target people are in such moral darkness, according to the three newspapers, that not even their pets, let alone their edible livestock,  should survive the artillery, rocket and aerial bombardment which the newspapers and their readers are voting, cheering,  and paying for. So this is what the race war these media have been promoting for years has come to now – the sensitive readers of the newspapers and of Coetzee’s novels cannot comprehend the possibility that despite their moral superiority,  they are losing this war (also paying for their defeat in their monthly petrol, electricity, food, and mortgage bills).

Which brings us to the soulful question: not the one about whether violence, cruelty,  and terrorism are morally justified against those who don’t have souls, but the question of whether one soul has the moral right to kill another for being the other – for being Russian, for being Arab. If the reader’s preference is not to address this question  in a civilised manner, then Coetzee’s new novel is just the ticket,  along with the Financial Times, Guardian, and New York Times. That’s also a ticket to a psytrance rave.

Screenshot of the flight of more than three thousand rave partygoers as Hamas attacked at 6:30 in the morning of October 7. At least 260 people are confirmed by the local ambulance service as dead.  The music festival was the first to be held in Israel by the Brazilian and international organisers of the electronic pop music performance known as Universo Paralello.  The Israeli dates, October 6-7, are the religious and public holiday known as Simchat Torah, which is the culmination of the week-long Sukkot festival. For Jews this sequence celebrates the biblical flight from slavery, the 40-year wandering in the wilderness ending in the arrival in Israel.  Dancing is a traditional part of the celebration of Simchat Torah.

But if the immediate point to consider is why Hamas targeted the Universo Paralello psytrance rave in the desert near the Gaza wall border, killing at least 260 people and taking an uncounted number of hostages, there are serious arguments to be considered.  Hamas is not answering. So in the spirit of Coetzee’s book and Princeton ethics, the sources will be identified fictionally as Talking Dog-1 and Talking Dog-2. In real life,  the first is a Moscow political veteran; the second,  a veteran of NATO military service in the Afghan War. Both favour active Russian engagement on the Arab and Palestinian side against Israel and its allies. They differ on whether the Hamas targeting of civilians contributes to or detracts from the moral case for Russian engagement.

Talking dog-1 — disproportionality

“I have a moral quandary about the new Russian stance. And also about the Palestinians achieving anything from this kind of butchery. Exposing Israeli myths, yes.  But no — killing women and children in their homes exposes only the Palestinians’ barbarity and a level of caveman hatred which will erase any prospect of their state. It will not result in any follow-up military action of liberation.

“Many in the west have tried to draw an equivalence (including some Israeli liberals) between Israel’s military tactics towards Palestine and the Russian military operations in Chechnya.  I have had great difficulty with the Russian practices in Chechnya. They were the same as the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] is doing to Gaza. The IDF and many others have studied the Russian war with Chechens. At the time, the British and the CIA helped the Chechens carry out Hamas-like attacks inside Dagestan and Ichkeria [secessionist Chechen republic]. The hostage-taking and killing of theatregoers and schoolchildren were not home-grown tactics of the Chechens. In response,  the Russians did to the Chechen villages what the IDF is doing now.  

“Does this not draw the line on what anyone seeking any form of political liberation for their community or country must not do? Chechen fighters crossed that line, killing indiscriminately, slaughtering anyone, murdering children. Because of that, they cannot create a state. And so, because of the butchery of Israeli civilians, Palestine cannot be created.”  

Talking dog-2 – eye for eye retribution

“Despite all the posturing that’s going on in the world from the moral high ground, it bears examining what exactly was going on in the desert on Oct. 6-7. Hamas was — and I understand that in the terrible violence of their strike, a profound message was intended.   Their message was – ‘no matter who think you are; where you are; whatever  technologically advanced parallel universe, you believe you inhabit,  as long as you compel us to suffer, so will you.  We are not parallel. We are real.  You and yours will not be safe unless and until we and ours are.’

“This wasn’t just another terrorist attack, nor was it a standard type of hostage-taking. It was a long and thoroughly thought-out, then brutally executed assault on the core value of the Israeli society – that is, that the Jews have more value, more human, legal and moral right to be dancing on that land than the Palestinians in prison a stone’s throw away in Gaza. This was also a message to challenge the Israeli concept of collective punishment of the Arabs by reversing it. Because of the import of these messages, and not just because of the casualties, Hamas anticipated, indeed planned the rage of the reaction. This too amplifies the message if you want to think about it.

“In that place, Hamas demonstrated that no one can protect the Israelis. They are not innocent, nor are they absolved of the collective guilt for which their security forces have long punished the Palestinians; and for which, briefly but lethally, Hamas has punished them. Find somewhere else to dance, they were saying. Better yet, don’t dance on our heads. Our suffering is not to be mocked.”

This said, there is no reason for Hamas, Hezbollah, or any of the Palestinian political figures to try explaining themselves now, nor talk in French, English, or any language of their sworn enemies.**  Sign language is the only one that is telling. It works with the deaf. 

[*] The full story of that meeting and of William Eddy, the first US spy against the Arabs and the single interpreter at the meeting between Roosevelt and Abdulaziz, can be read in the book, The Jackals’ Wedding, American Power, Arab Revolt.  
[**] For an exceptional statement of Palestinian thinking in English, just published, read this.

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