Monday, October 19, 2009

J.M. Coetzee: Waiting for the Barbarians

J.M. Coetzee is one of the writers whose works I have been teaching, in the context of Post-colonial literature and also as part of my new course on South African Literature. I have taught Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country, Disgrace, and Foe, and, lately, Waiting for the Barbarians.

Whenever I teach my literature courses, I like to include some works I have not read before, so that I can explore these works with the students. I enjoy the risks this entails, such as lagging behind the students in reading the text. A convert to Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I feel that this somehow empowers the students.

As part of my South African Literature course this semester, I have been teaching Waiting for the Barbarians, a haunting narrative whose very first sentence catches your attention: "I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire."

Waiting for the Barbarians
can be read on many levels. On the surface, this is a novel about a frontier town--at the farthest end of an Empire--anxious about an invasion by barbarians who live just beyond. The fear of the barbarians and the actions the rulers take to confront that threat invests this novel with allegorical significance, even for our time. The fear of evil forces, of enemies, is quintessentially human, and Coetzee explores the impact of this fear on the people who run the Empire as well as on their subjects.

Trying to decode Coetzee's novel, I have invoked works as disparate as Kafka's The Trial and the powerful play, Fire on the Snow, by Douglas Stewart of Australia. I have invoked theories of alienation and the absurd as articulated by existentialists and other philosophers. I even made my students read Ward Churchill's controversial essay, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Waiting for the Barbarians is its lack of geographical specificity. We don't know where on earth the story takes place. It could be anywhere. History is replete with examples of the workings of Empire as described in this novel, examples of what happens when rulers use the idea of enemies--real of imagined, domestic or foreign--to whip up xenophobia and clamp down on the population. The siege conditions and mentality Coetzee describes so insightfully has something in common with the story Albert Camus tells in The Plague.

With its spare storyline, flowing like a silken thread, Waiting for the Barbarians is a masterful depiction of the dark side of the human condition. We might be unwilling to take a pessimistic view of ourselves, but history, unfortunately, yields unforgettable examples of the kind of truths Coetzee tells. We so readily believe dire warnings about enemies being out there, waiting to harm us, that we succumb to manipulation by those who claim to be safeguarding our security. We are, perhaps, our own worst enemies.

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