Dog Bite Degustation: Coetzee's "Waiting For The Barbarians"

on Friday, May 14, 2010
When I finally got around to writing down my top fifty last year, I made a rather nonsensical rule that any single author could only have one book included on the list. For the most part that proved unproblematic. There was, however, one exception - J. M. Coetzee. For me, choosing between his early novels is like choosing between one's children. And I mean Sophie's Choice style, not just who gets the extra piece of chocolate cake. At least four of Coetzee's novels could rightfully have taken a place amongst my favourite books of all time. Disgrace, The Life and Times of Michael K. and The Master of Petersberg are all worthy contenders. But it is his slim novella, Waiting For The Barbarians that has remained lodged at the back of my throat since the time I first read it and that I consider to be his greatest achievement. It was with a strange mix of giddiness and trepidation, therefore, that I picked it back up for May's Dog Bite Degustation challenge.

On a distant colonial outpost, the townsfolk live quietly under the watchful eye of the local magistrate. He has grown weary and complacent, dishing out minor justice for even more minor offending. Peace reigns, for the most part, save only for an ever present fear of attack by the 'barbarians' who, though we never really see, are said to live beyond the gates. The status quo is interrupted by the arrival of Civil Guard soldiers, sent from the city to ward off this imminent attack. They gallop into the distance and bring back a few scraggly nomads, who they subject to awful torture in an attempt to have them reveal their plans. Amongst them is a young woman, whose ankles are broken and eyes burnt with hot pincers. Finding her begging one day, the magistrate takes her under his wing and, eventually into his bed. Guilt soon gets the better of him, and he takes her back out onto the land to her people. Colonel Joll of the Civil Guard accuses him of treason and so begins one of the most dazzling and complete destructions of a good man that I have ever read.

Waiting For The Barbarians reads like an effusion of claustrophobic paranoia and brutal degradation. From the opening scene of horrid torture committed by the visiting officers of the Civil Guard against an old black peasant, to the magistrate's excruciating fall from grace, one is held by Coetzee at the very edge of sanity. It takes willpower not to cast the book aside, knowing that the author will force you to continue staring the darkest underbelly of our shared inhumanity in the face. Prickling with bleak discomfort, Coetzee lays bare the many facets of white guilt in Africa, juxtaposed with the depredation of imperial arrogance. He asks the rather obvious question of who, in the circumstances, is really the barbarian, but his answer is not what you might expect. Indeed, it is the depth and complexity of Coetzee's exploration of 'the other' in all its possible incarnations that really sets this book apart.


Nathan said...

Have you seen Disgrace? I'm yet to read anything by Coetzee, but I saw Disgrace last week and it was amazing. Superbly well made film, and brought out the discourse of South America in a way that I can only assume is faithful to the novel's intentions.

The Bookworm said...

No, I've been meaning to but have yet to get around to it. I think a trip to JB is in order to pick up the DVD. Love Coetzee, love Malkovich. What can go wrong?

As for you not having read any Coetzee, drop everything and make a beeline to your nearest independent bookstore!

Nathan said...

Sure, I'll put it on my list. Should Barbarians be my first?

Emma said...

Malkovich's accent can go wrong. And does, frequently. The daughter steals the show.

The Bookworm said...

Noooooo.... Malkovich is infallible.... Though I have heard that said about the daughter several times now. Either way I just have to get off my arse and actually watch the darn film (though that would probably best be done on my arse I guess).

As for which Coetzee you should start with I'd say Barbarians or Disgrace. That said, if you want something a little lighter, Michael K is a fun picaresque.

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