Youth is a short novel, less than 200 pages. Yet the ability to convey in a few sentences what would take other writers paragraphs continues to be evident in J.M. Coetzee’s writing.
Youth tells a familiar story for people who live in the Commonwealth and what was even more widespread during the 1950’s and 1960’s when the story is set. It deals with migration and immigration. The narrator dreams of going to London to get away from his home country; when he gets there he will be able to live fully and truly be an artist.
The opening portion of the book is set in the University of Cape Town. The Sharpeville massacre, civil unrest and the possibility of a military draft finally give the narrator enough excuses to leave for London.
Just like the immigrant tales we are accustomed to, the gap between real London and fantasy London was too large to be bridged. The narrator takes a job as a computer programmer, which is monotonous but still he knows that must strive to become a poet. The alienation of the London populace keeps weighing him down after time. He cannot pass as an Englishman but deems it necessary to eliminate all ties with his homeland.
Youth has parts of the immigrant experience we are accustomed to reading about. The experience we find in books such as Selvon’s The Lonely Londoner’s and Naipaul’s The Mimic Men. The alienation and displacement are familiar themes of the immigrant experience but Coetzee’s narrator attempts to pass as an Englishman. This is an option that is impossible for the ethnic minority characters we are accustomed to. The different view of the immigrant experience is refreshing by the very familiarity it brings.
The narrator has ideas about poetry and love that rule his life. He expects that one must suffer for art and the ability to be able to create things of beauty. But there is one consolation: “''Because they are creators, artists possess the secret of love,'' and women, wanting to be brushed by ''the sacred fire,'' instinctively recognize this.”
Unfortunately for the narrator, absolutely nothing in his life happens according to his ideas. Youth speaks about that part of life when one has several dreams, all of them seemingly just out of reach. The period of life where frustration is all too regular.
While Youth is supposedly a story about a young man attempting to become a writer, the narrator never writes much. Given the semi-autobiographical nature of this novel, it seems that the narrator of the story and J.M. Coetzee have nothing in common as writers. Perhaps when J.M. Coetzee publishes a book about his life after 23 we will find out what made him such a great writer.