Artizan st reading group met to discuss JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians

barbariansJM Coetzee’s Waiting for the barbarians, his 1980 grim fable of colonialism, was our target this time around. An aged local official of an empire, based at its frontier, is invaded by the agents of that empire’s oppression, forced to witness the torture of captives from its outlying indigents (the barbarians of the title) on the pretext of their conspiracy to attack it, is tortured himself, and finally bears witness to the imperialists’ collapse and retreat.

South African? Timeless, opined Janet. But, for the South Africa of 1980, an iconic intervention by a South African author, to Malcolm’s mind. Apartheid, colonial racism, was beginning its manic death throes. There were murders, imprisonments, assassinations. No one could mistake the connection – despite time and place, as Rory pointed out, being made anonymous. And how anonymous! You’ve got swords and armour, snow and desert, clocks, nomads, farmers, muskets, bows and arrows… Malcolm suspected Coetzee might have had an eye on being able to deny any connection to his native soil, in the interests of self-preservation. More of this anon.

Sex! Unnecessary sex. Jenny hadn’t been able to put up with it all. The aged magistrate portrays himself (it’s all first person) as prey to desires of the flesh. Fair enough. He has no wife, goes to an ‘inn’ and visits prostitutes; takes care of a tortured ‘barbarian’ girl and shares her favours… but so frequently? And in such dire straits? As the only aged male present, Malcolm had to admit that he’d have to take his hat off to this level of libido. Coetzee seems to be making a point of it. Even after torture and humiliation, our character still has the urge to satisfy himself with a kindly cook while she nurses her baby. Maybe it was the literary fashion of the time to steam the narrative up a bit?

But stereotypes? Another accusation from Jenny. Missing the point, according to Malcolm. It’s supposed to be a fable. Characters stripped bare of incidental detail so that they simply fit their roles. If there was a problem, it was in Coetzee embellishing his magistrate with ‘dinners with friends’ and playing ‘chess with officers’, invoking a background which puzzles the reader without adding a bit to the story. Should have read his Kafka more carefully.

OK. About this fable business. Why, Jenny wanted to know, had Coetzee fudged writing directly about South Africa? Thereby hung a big swinging bone of contention. Because the issues he’s dealing with aren’t just then and there but now and everywhere, Janet maintained. How true. But check this out. Back in the day (1982) there was a review of the book by a ratty little right-wing journalist (Malcolm still bears grudges) called Bernard Levin, which claimed it had nothing to do with Apartheid. These were the days when Margaret Thatcher was calling Nelson Mandela a terrorist. According to Levin, the story was ‘deeper’, about human nature. And so on. The best riposte was in an immediately succeding review in the New York Times by Irving Howe. ‘To scant the politics of Mr Coetzee’s novel is to pull its teeth,’ he wrote, quoting Levin.

Levin pointed to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of darkness as exemplar. He’d have done better with Under western eyes, according to Malcolm. And if he’d lived long enough, he’d no doubt have admired Ian McEwan’s Saturday. The imagined aim of all these pieces is to avoid disturbing the status quo by transferring grievance to a general bemoaning of the human condition. Begging the question of whose political side their authors are on. Coetzee, Malcolm held, did not deserve to be bracketed with such quietism.

Rory speaking. Just a word about lechery. The magistrate’s concern about the barbarian girl’s broken feet. His obsessive bathing and oiling of them. Wasn’t this a bit New Testament? And the magistrate’s strappado, his Spanish Inquisition torture, described so graphically. Christ’s crucifixion? Worth considering.

Let’s get back to Coetzee’s political orientation. How about his more polemical bits, anti-imperialist rants. There are two. The last goes: ‘What has made it impossible for us to live like fish in water…? It is the fault of empire!’ Malcolm had recognised that. Golden Age stuff. Even Biblical. Once people lived in a state of innocence. Then wicked beings corrupted them. Nonsense, but principally a pitch for political activism. Unfortunately not always anti-imperialist.

Rory thought there was no need for the polemical bits against imperialism. The story said it all. Probably right.

City of London Libraries