J.M. Coetzee’s Nobel lecture, He and his man, must surely be the most remarkable such speech ever heard in Stockholm. There are no thankings of the Academy, no references to honored predecessors, no musings on the state of literature. There is only a tale of a man in Bristol, retired, living with his memories and a dead parrot and the tales sent him by his man.
Boston, on the coast of Lincolnshire, is a handsome town, writes his man. The tallest church steeple in all of England is to be found there; sea-pilots use it to navigate by. Around Boston is fen country. Bitterns abound, ominous birds who give a heavy, groaning call loud enough to be heard two miles away, like the report of a gun.
The fens are home to many other kinds of birds too, writes his man, duck and mallard, teal and widgeon, to capture which the men of the fens, the fen-men, raise tame ducks, which they call decoy ducks or duckoys.
Fens are tracts of wetland. There are tracts of wetland all over Europe, all over the world, but they are not named fens, fen is an English word, it will not migrate…
I did not realize there were fens in the original Boston as well as its New World namesake; I knew “duckoy” was an occasional early variant of decoy (which according to the OED “was preceded by a simple form coy sb. (known in 1621), a. Dutch kooi of the same meaning… but the origin of the de- is undetermined”) but was enthralled by the tale Coetzee (or “his man”) spins of Dutch and German ducks lured to Lincolnshire by crafty decoy-men; I did not know about the Halifax gibbet with its cruel hope-against-hope of escape, which I rather wish Coetzee had invented. Read it. Will you see language better used on a public occasion? I trow not.
Addendum. Caterina, in her enthusiasm for the speech, has put online Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Crusoe in England,” which makes an interesting companion piece.