Tuesday, September 13

Considering J.M. Coetzee's "Waiting for the Barbarians"

Waiting for the Barbarians is an intensely frustrating novel. I had enjoyed Coetzee's Disgrace a great deal last year and was eager to try Barbarians which was mentioned on the dust jacket of Disgrace. What I found was a novel with frequently brilliant writing and evocations of character but crippled by its thematic foundation. You can use Kobe beef and bread crumbs from an artisan bakery and only the freshest onions and celery, but they can only take meatloaf so far.

Coetzee's descriptions of his narrator's torture ("But my torturers were not interested in degrees of pain. They were interested only in demonstrating to me what it meant to live in a body, as a body, a body which can entertain notions of justice only as long as it is whole and well, which very soon forgets them when its head is gripped and a pipe is pushed down its gullet and pints of salt water are poured into it till it coughs and retches and flails and voids itself.") and the narrator's confusion at his own desires and motives ("I know that they commit an error in treating me so summarily. For I am no orator. What would I have said if they had let me go on? That is it is worse to beat a man's feet to pulp than to kill him in combat? ... The words they stopped me from uttering may have been very paltry indeed, hardly words to rouse the rabble.") are the finest ingredients. This is excellent writing. It is honest, it is clear and it all goes to waste in the service of eviscerating imperialism, the distance between colonists and colonized, the rush to violence, the senseless of it all. He even goes so far as to say straight up that maybe the colonists are the real barbarians of the title.

He may as well have written in support of women's suffrage or against chattel slavery. Barbarians was published in 1980. Did anyone take imperialism seriously anymore then? After Britain gave Rhodesia its independence that year, its only remaining colony in Africa was South West Africa which became Namibia in 1989. George Orwell had published "Shooting an Elephant" in 1936. Did Coetzee seriously think that he needed to convince people that imperialism was bad, that things needed to change?

It only becomes doubly frustrating because I know Coetzee can do so much better. In Disgrace a professor leaves the city in the wake of a coercive affair with a student to live with his daughter. Their home is invaded, the professor beaten and the daughter raped. It would be easy enough to provide simple morals for these events, like he does in Barbarians, but Coetzee resists and explores the complexities and compromises that lead to and from these. It's a far cry from Colonel Joll and Mandel, the leading villains of Barbarians.

All of which makes me curious. Why the celebration of this novel in particular within Coetzee's oeuvre? Why was Barbarians picked by Penguin Books as part of its Great Books of the 20th Century and again for its six-book Penguin Ink series? I admit that I have only read this and Disgrace from among Coetzee's twelve novels and three memoirs, but were none of the others more worthy?

My worry is that Barbarians's popularity has something to do with its simple disparaging treatment of something that very few today would celebrate. People can read Coetzee and recognize that he has more than a way with words, but they don't want the ambiguities of Disgrace. They want something easy that they can understand and be applauded for agreeing with. They want To Kill A Mockingbird. Which isn't so bad. You could do a lot worse than Barbarians. It's just that it's wasted opportunity, and there's better by the same author.