John Maxwell Coetzee's literary production has been deeply influenced by the author's personal cultural and social background. Although Boyhood and Youth cannot be strictly considered autobiographical, both novellas recount the authors' life in South Africa during apartheid. Here he experienced the contradictions od a country where class distinction and ethnicity played a major role. He grew up in a well-educated white Afrikaaner family who chose to speak English and was torn between worlds and painfully questioned his own identity, acutely observing the brutality of the sharp division between black and white, Afrikaans and English.
One of Coetzee's main themes is the fundamental lack of cultural values at the root of western white colonialism. The central issue is whether it is possible to understand that mentality behind brutality and injustice, sometimes visually portrayed in extremely violent torture scences.
In Foe (1987) Coetzee introduces some powerful symbols to explore the implications of the relation between colonizers and colonized. In the novel, two writers try to tell Friday's story of how he escaped while all his fellow slaves died, still shackled, in the sinking ship, but the fundamental question is whether they have the right to speak for the mute Friday, whose tongue was cut out by slavers. While Friday becomes the silent voice of millions of outcasts, the novel as a whole delves into the issue of race relations and implicity hints at the South Africa reality, where whites and blacks are often separated by linguistic and cultural incomprehension. In Disgrace (1999), Coetzee examines the problems that still afflict post-apartheid South African portrayed as a nightmarish land of crime, rape, lack of institutional protection and sharp racial contrasts. Political changes, it is implied, can do nothing to eliminate suffering and brutality. Coetzee's latest novel, Diary of a Bad Year (2007), opens to contemporary international issues such as American and British foreign policy and Guantanamo Bay. The novel deals with provocative subjects such as the American military intervention in Iraq, vegetarianism and cruelty to animals.

Coetzee is considered a multilingual writer. He has been translated widely into several languages included Afrikaans, and he has written essays on various subjects such as censorship and the present cultural situation of his home country. Even if his novels and essays are centred on the South African condition, Coetzee has succeded in universalising the dilemma at the core of imperialism and colonialism societies in general. In his novels, no direct moral answer is given, no simple solution is offered. The writer's task is to highlight problems and to give voice to millions of voiceless people. Not by chance, in the Nobel prize award ceremony, he was defined as the author "who in innumerable guises portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider".

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