12.17.2010

Exhibit 1.1.9

Waiting for the Barbarians


Okay, so I'm going to start posting about books I've read (or at least books I liked). I've said I was going to start doing this at least a half dozen times, but now I feel compelled, both by my desire to have some record of what I'm reading and my desire to stop looking at that creepy picture from the last post.

So, Waiting for the Barbarians. I'll say this: it's the first Coetzee I've read, and I'd read more. Coetzee previously belonged tangentially to a group of writers that, for reasons I've never been quite clear on, I steered clear of. Mostly these are novelists who came to prominence (at least on my timeline) in the 1980s and I--correctly or incorrectly--associate with a sort of smug misanthropy of upperclass white dudes of that era. In fact, if these writers formed a basketball team in 1987, it would look like this:

PG: Martin Amis
SG: Bret Easton Ellis
SF: Jay McInerney
PF: Tom Wolfe
C: John Updike

Coach: Christopher Hitchens

It would be a very terrible basketball team.

I formed this opinion without having read any of their books--or having seen them play basketball--and in the books I've read since, I was sometimes right and I was sometimes wrong. Certainly these writers are better than I probably want them to be and certainly there are strains of whatever lazy mysogony, pompousness, and reactionary fear I suspected to be in their work in books that I actually do like from around that time. But anyway, Coetzee somehow got lumped in with these folks in my mind, and I'm not even sure why. Actually, I probably know exactly why. The first book of his I heard of, Disgrace, which everyone seems to love, reads in summary like a book I would hate. Weary professor seduces student and doesn't understand why this gets him fired? O fuck right off.

Still, I guess that's not what the book is really about (or at least he learns his lesson or something when his daughter is raped which, sigh, whatever). And while I can't speak for that book, I can now understand it's probably not the book I think it is. Waiting for the Barbarians could also be summarized in ways that make it sound like that sort of book, but to do so would be to miss the point which is that it knows it's that sort of book. Or at least that the protagonist is that sort of character, eventually realizes it, and spends most of the book trying to figure out why and to what end. Briefly, the Magistrate runs a town on the frontier of an unnamed Empire slowly building to a war against the nomadic barbarians who have been pushed to the mountains. Once the war, or something like it, starts, the Magistrate falls in with a barbarian girl who has been in his jail, and the rest of the book charts the causes and consequences of his infatuation.

That he doesn't understand his infatuation is really the point in a book that is basically one big fable about colonialism. All the other aspects of it are somewhere in the representation of the Empire, but the Magistrate himself--a learned and liberal character--enacts the most subtle and damaging form of oppression in his treatment of the girl. He's disgusted by torture but doesn't understand that his ritualized and asexual washing of the girl's broken body is perhaps even more dehumanizing than what broke it (as at least that makes sense in the context of a war). So, yes, it's objectifying but intentionally so as he spends the latter pages of the book trying to understand what happened between the two of them while his body, like the Empire itself, begins to crumble.

Perhaps my favorite thing about the book is how enthusiastically it's written. Honestly, I expected to find out it was his first novel, but I guess it's his 3rd. At times it's almost boyish in its obvious pleasure in describing the harsh landscape or in the Magistrate's long self-reflective passages. Those were my favorite moments, but the book works on the whole, too. Maybe it's allegory (we're all the Empire!) is a little simplistic, but the exploration of colonial guilt is powerful and complex. On my basketball team of writers I liked more than I thought I would, Coetzee can play small forward.

3 comments:

carlinhmackie said...

Replace "colonialism" with "apartheid" (itself a kind of colonialism) and you more or less (probably less) have Disgrace.

Dave Madden said...

Wow. The only Coetzee I've read is The Life and Times of Joseph K, which is just bleak bleak bleak dreary wartorn realist bleak amazing shit. I didn't know the synopses of any of his other novels, so I laughed at yer whole "gross dudes who 'came of age' in the 80s" basketball team analogy. (And wait: Updike? Rabbit, Run was 1960.)

I wanted to read more Coetzee, but this post hasn't exactly encouraged me to do it.

(FYI: my word verification below is "twitt".)

A. Peterson said...

I know on Updike. I just couldn't think of another and consider him a legacy member of the team. He's like their Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Except that book Terrorist makes me think he hated Muslims. Which is why he's perfect for this team, incidentally.