J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ and the unteachable graniteness

The trouble, if it can really be named as such, for many contemporary authors is the baggage that comes with national identity. For many, to think of them as separate or divisible from their nationality would be an impossibility. There are some who seem born into the role as elder statesmen or cultural ambassadors, one thinks of Seamus Heaney and his sublime speech to the Nobel committee. 

There are others who seem far more ambivalent or unwilling to engage in the role, such as J.M. Coetzee. His quiet personality, supposedly ascetic lifestyle (discussed, I think, because of its congruencies with the tenor of his prose), moral vegetarianism and reticence to publicly engage with others features so prominently in reviews of his work probably because of his withdrawn qualities, demonstrating the media’s dogged determination to do away with the mystique that accrues to particular authors, not realising that these investigations will result in the dispersal of exactly that same mystique that marks these figures out as being interesting in the first place. Oh, the media. This is partially why I look forward to reading Here and Now, a collection of correspondence between Coetzee and Paul Auster, one author famed for his lack of public participation just as much as the other relishes it.

One of my favourite classes during my undergraduate degree was one on contemporary Irish fiction. Apart from having an improbably high density of my favourite ever novels written by my favourite ever novelists, Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, Anne Enright’s What Are You Like? and Hood by Emma Donoghue, it also introduced me to some less well known novelists, no less adept, no less deserving of being discussed in the classroom, such as Glenn Patterson’s The International (class) and Deirdre Madden’s One by One in the Darkness (definitely worth reading). The class had an arc, a clearly defined direction which, while the conversation varied in many ways, (how could it not, when the novels were such an eclectic bunch says you) the point was that the allegorical reading of Irish fiction, the movement from colonised state to rapidly proclaimed republic, to an improbably conservative Catholic country which gradually transformed itself into an apparent economic and information technology powerhouse, before running headlong of a fiscal cliff in a car driven by (what else) a soundly sleeping regulator was a well-worn one and well worth re-conceptualising. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding myself to be chronically bored by international media comment pieces about Ireland that begin with descriptions of the practices of exploitative landlords in the 1850’s. This is where the Irish obsession with land began, the reporter often intones, in a piece about the prevalence of ghost estates, as if Isaac Butt was in any way relevant to the discussion. Irish historical baggage is a gateway drug to horrendous metaphors and nightmare clichés, green tigers, tribunal about tribunal about tribunal and *REDACTED*

The point of the course was that these allegories are stifling in the extreme, and that this allegorising of literature obscures the presence of interpersonal relationships and more subtly embedded social networks that consist in the violation of national identities. For better or worse in a globalised world, national narratives should (in theory) matter less. This much is true, at least, on the level of cultural interchange, if not in the political sphere.

This post has had very little to do with Coetzee’s novel, so I’m going to try and bring it back around in the last paragraph.

Waiting for the Barbarians details the experience of a magistrate on the frontier of a colonial state, surrounded by an inscrutable enemy with whom colonial administrators are locked in an endless sequence of attack, counter-attack, revenge and reprisal. The protagonist is not necessarily an active participant in this war effort, he reminisces for the day when his post was an easy one to fill, and his duties primarily consisted of having sex with young women.

A number of barbarians are rounded up by the colonists and tortured for information about their society, their plans to attack the frontier stronghold and one of them, after having been tortured until she lost her sight, is left behind. The magistrate then begins an unusual affair with her. They seem incapable of connection, of understanding. Even to the end of their affair, the magistrate is unresolved about how exactly he feels about her, if indeed he does feel for her at all. Their parting is, to a sentimentalist such as myself, is unbearable, beneath Coetzee’s stony reportage is a poignancy and a mourning for an understanding that is always doomed to being mired in confusion: “On this bleak hill-side in mid-morning I can find no trace in myself of that stupefied eroticism that used to draw me night after night to her body…There is only a blankness, and desolation that there has to be such a blankness.”

A familiar theme in Coetzee’s work is the difficulty of understanding the other, especially across racial lines. But this would be to inappropriately specify how Coetzee makes the unknowability of every human being clear, in an unforgettable phrase, the magistrate mentions “In all of us, deep down, there seems to be something granite and unteachable.”


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