“Go back to Beatrice, the real Beatrice,” urges Beatriz, a graceful yet unassuming forty-something patron of the Sala Mampou concert hall who lives with her husband and son in Barcelona. “What was it that made Dante choose her over all other women? Or go back to Mary. What was it about Mary full of grace that made God decide to visit her by night?” With questions like these, Beatriz is really wondering about herself—about what it was that made a seventy-year-old visiting Polish piano soloist, Witold Walccyzkiecz, fall in love with her over an arranged dinner one night in 2015, thereby seeding the lopsided yet mutually riveting infatuation which undergirds Nobel Prize-winning J.M. Coetzee’s latest svelte and melancholy novel, The Pole.
It began when Beatriz’s friend Margarita, a former Madrid Conservatory student who initially proposed Witold’s recital, fell sick the night of his performance. The plan was for Margarita and her husband to treat Witold to dinner following the concert; now, Beatriz hosts the meal in her stead. There, frustrated by the musician’s moody and arch demeanor, Beatriz interrogates him about his art. She presses Witold about his inspiration, Chopin, in particular—why does he live on? To what end does a long-dead composer retain importance? The pianist replies “he tells us about ourselves. About our desires. Which are sometimes not clear to us… which are sometimes desires for that which we cannot have. That which is beyond us.” When the night ends, he thanks her graciously for her questions.
Months pass before an email arrives in Beatriz’s inbox. Witold is in Girona teaching at the Conservatori Felip Pedrell and hopes to entertain her briefly. After some deliberation, Beatriz decides to go. Upon her arrival, the pianist informs her that she has, in her absence, become his “symbol of peace.” He also invites her to accompany him on a concert tour in Brazil. Repulsed, she declines. Only, some months later—compelled by whatever inarticulable magnetism now attracts them—Beatriz finds herself orchestrating a one-on-one vacation with Witold at her husband’s family house in the town of Sóller, near Valldemossa in Majorca. The two pass a week alone in one another’s company: eating, talking, listening to music, watching each other’s bodies grow old at different paces beneath the Spanish sun.
In many ways, The Pole marks a departure from much of the fiction for which Coetzee is most famous. Gone are the densely rendered landscapes of South Africa from titles like Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), Foe (1986), or Disgrace (1999). Here, the sketch of Spain provided is sparse and gestural. The novel’s plot exhibits a similar economy: rather than erect the more complex, often thrilling or suspenseful narrative structures of his earlier novels, Coetzee keeps his latest volume sleek and relatively singular in impulse. He focuses almost entirely on the interior workings of his protagonist, wracked as she is by competing drives toward curiosity and contempt with respect to the titular Pole. Individual sections (of which there are six) are further broken up into subsections, clearly delineated by numbers—a stylistic choice which itself lends a sense of preordainment or organized inevitability to the progression of events. Voiced dialogue stays at a minimum so that, for a book that draws so heavily on the language and subject matter of music, The Pole remains remarkably quiet.
This quietude—verging, often, on anticlimax—proves Coetzee’s masterstroke. After all, what words could do justice to the aching truths that accompany aging? It is through the sheer simplicity of the narrative that not only Witold’s but Beatriz’s desperation for meaning—for self-knowledge and desires made clear—emerges. It is the same simplicity that renders all the more painful the unavoidable recognition that the two are not engaged in any great passion. That, as Beatriz ultimately writes in a letter to Witold which she will never send, “if Aphrodite is supposed to stand for me, if I am supposed to be Aphrodite, you have made a mistake. I am not that particular goddess. In fact, I am not a goddess at all. Ditto if I am supposed to be Beatrice.”
Of course, her words do not fall without their note of sadness. In this way, Beatriz and Witold are not so different as she might like to claim: from their very first dinner, she pressured him for some semblance of lasting significance, wondering why Chopin’s music continued to captivate audiences. In the end, Coetzee seems to suggest, the two lukewarm lovers are united by the most human and often doomed of desires: to be chosen, to be consequential, to be (dare one even hope) divine.
by J. M. Coetzee
Liveright Publishing Corporation
Published on September 19, 2023