On the surface of it, Youth seems to reflect the struggles of a boy, against the turmoil that hits South Africa in the 1950s, the conflict brought on by the Apartheid Movement and an imminent revolution against the political and social structure. The narrator plots an escape to London, away from the ravaged country, away from the stifling love of his mother, into an existence that seems promising in terms of financial and literary freedom.
But it takes a turn for the worse. London, if anything, stagnates him. As he finds himself increasingly absorbed into the rut of a desk-job, he gets engulfed in misery, which he mistakenly believes to be fodder for his poetic endeavors. Yet, as he decides to quit his job as a computer programmer, he can’t seem to muster the poetry that South Africa had once infused in him. Unable to detach himself from his roots, he indulges in stray affairs and random jobs that plunge him into further misery until he stumbles upon an opportunity to put his mathematics background to use. As he moves away to the suburbs, he finds himself absorbed in his work, passionately, along with interests not remotely linked to poetry. This is the living he ekes out, despite his ambitions of making it as a poet. As his job, cricket, chess and books on philosophy replace his past, he begins to come to terms with what life has laid out for him.
Neither does youth classify as a book the reader easily identifies with, nor does it make for easy reading. Like other Coetzee’s works, Youth is cerebral and its interpretations, subjective. The book can serve as quite an encyclopaedia to some literary aspirants who have yet to reach the pinnacle of creativity. The Narrator lacks inspiration and hence, stops writing. It’s a book that also lays focus on how the hum-drum of a hostile city can render the artist in a person devoid of any emotion or clarity.
It’s a must-read for those who genuinely enjoy metaphysical writings, Coetzee followers or those who fit into no category of artists – writers, poets, authors, altogether. It’s a book that can either alter the vision of the reader or leave the reader wondering where the book is headed to. Yes, there are moments of lapses in the book, where even the most interpretative of readers may find themselves at a loose end.
But all in all, Youth proves to be quite the exhilarating experience.