The Pole by J. M. Coetzee is at once moody and mysterious – full of tension.
This novella centers around Beatriz and Wittold. She’s a 40-something music lover; he, a 70-year-old piano master from Poland.
When Wittold comes to Barcelona for a recital, Beatriz, as a favor to her best friend who has arranged the Pole’s visit, is asked to play hostess to the pianist after his concert. This isn’t a task she welcomes, but it is made a bit more bearable by a couple of fellow patrons who join them for dinner. She doesn’t like the Pole’s music, his interpretation of Chopin. She endures the evening, thankful when it is over.
After his visit, Wittold mails Beatriz a CD of his music and arranges to visit again by teaching lessons near her. This is the beginning of Wittold’s declarations of love for her, which include an invitation to run away with him to Brazil.
It would take less than an afternoon to read this intensely psychological portrayal of a relationship between pursuer and pursued. There’s a palpable sense of want, of lacking, of expecting and maybe even hoping for more. Though over and over Beatriz says she doesn’t want a relationship with Wittold, it is obvious she is intrigued by his affection and most of her actions speak very differently.
With explicit allusions to both Chopin’s personal life and Dante and his Beatrice, connections to the arts are woven throughout. Perhaps someone more musically inclined would recognize the mood and movement of a concerto.
This mostly third-person limited narrative reminds me of the poignant accuracy with which Ian McEwan accesses inner monologues. This may be an unfair comparison since Coetzee predates McEwan and is similarly prolific, but McEwan is a bit more well-known.
This is probably unjust as well given that Coetzee has won two Booker awards – the first to do so – as well as the Nobel Prize in Literature. As for the Booker, he’s been long-listed three other times and shortlisted a fourth. Those who know my affection and reliance on the Booker understand my affection for Coetzee.
The Pole is a book I can tell will stay with me. I will turn over in my head questions about Beatriz’s motivations. For me, it is sad. And maybe for her too. Is this life? Do we secretly hope life – and the people we love or have relationships with – will be more exciting, more vibrant, and more exceptional than they are? What is our acceptance of the ordinary?
For as little as the novella The Pole requires upfront, it offers much that you’ll want to consider once you’re finished. It would make for a great discussion, and I highly recommend to those who enjoy pondering a book well beyond its close.
I was provided an advanced reader copy of The Pole by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. To learn more, go to netgalley.com. The Pole was published in Spanish in 2022, and the English version will be available Sept. 19, 2023.
Book Club Prompts for The Pole
How much do you think Beatriz’s husband’s infidelity played a part in her actions?
If you don’t know, look up the relationship between Dante and his Beatrice. How are the two relationships similar and different?
Were you surprised by Beatriz’s offer of the visit to her husband’s family home? Why or why not? What about her other offer there?
Infidelity seems to be an acceptable social norm. Discussing the various characters and their modality of infidelity, do you think this is true?
How do the poems alter Beatriz’s feelings of Wittold?
Did Beatriz love Wittold? Did Wittold love Beatriz?
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