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In the Garrison

Waiting for the Barbarians

by J.M. Coetzee
Penguin, 156 pp., $3.95 (paper)

These two South African novels came out in France at about the same time they were published here, and it was instructive (at least for me) to read what the French had to say about them because the French are shameless enthusiasts when they are insecure. The French cannot resist a Great Theme. The same people whose highest praise for work of known quality—a Delacroix aquarelle, say, or the attentions of a gentle and discreet lover—is a shrug and a pas mal, will start blathering sublime, superbe, and éclatant when they confront a book or a film or a piece of theater that offers up some tonic cataclysm for their appreciation. They have a word for writers who chronicle the important inhumanities of their time. Nobelisable, they say. After Solzhenitsyn, every Russian dissident with a novel in his drawer was nobelisable. Today, the writers of South Africa—masterly writers like J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, popular writers like André Brink and Alan Paton—are nobelisable. Apartheid has replaced le Goulag as the revealed outrage of the literary season, and a “literature of apartheid” is taken for the books of a dozen writers of wildly various sensibility and talent, proving only how much easier it is to tell good from bad than to tell good books from bad ones.

This is simply to say that in the negotiation between writers and readers that creates “literature,” readers will often make the more imaginative adjustments. It may have taken crafty masters of social conscience like Dickens and Zola to invent the guilty reader, but by now guilty reading has come into its own as armchair ritual among the bourgeoisie, and it does not depend on crafty masters—just on a vague appetite for self-chastisement.

It is this appetite, this pleasant moral twinge, that we bring, lately, to books by white South Africans. We judge South African writers less by their quality than by the risks they take in putting the wall of their own dissidence between ourselves and the black Africa we praise and fear. We love them for being South African for us. They are our surrogates in resistance. And so we are undone by the bad books—books like André Brink’s A Chain of Voices—they often write in earnest exploitation of their (our) just cause. We are undone by books of mediocre purity. As writers, Brink and Coetzee have little in common besides good intentions, but it was nearly as hard to discover this on the front page of The New York Times Book Review as it was in the book sections of Le Monde.

Coetzee, at forty-two, has not written very much: two early novellas coupled with rather leaden symbolism to make a “novel” called Dusklands and two short novels, In the Heart of the Country1 and, now, Waiting for the Barbarians. One suspects from his prose that he writes slowly, with nerves and caution; and inasmuch as he began publishing only eight years ago one also suspects that he is less impatient for celebrity than he is for excellence. There has been an ascetic, restless quality to his work. He has set himself conventions to follow like a monk setting himself penances—to distill his passion.

At the beginning, the strain showed. The two memoirs that make up Dusklands (one “by” an eighteenth-century Afrikaner on a trek and the other “by” a twentieth-century American on a psychological warfare project) were labored to begin with, and as parallel narratives they were simply pretentious. But three years later, writing In the Heart of the Country, Coetzee began to master the odd forms he had invented, turning the tensions of the exercise into a kind of choreography. In the Heart of the Country is a mad girl’s narrative. The English edition of the book puts all of that narrative in English, but in the original South African edition, consciousness (if that is the word) is in English and dialogue in Afrikaans, and the result is a truly original novel about language, a novel in which language itself is protagonist and victim, a commentary on the salutary and oppressive uses of the words we speak to each other and to ourselves.

In the Heart of the Country was almost by definition too “written,” too thick. Waiting for the Barbarians is meticulously clean. It is a reflection on power in the form of a parable of imperial power. Its landscape, which is the moral landscape of Empire, is as particular as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha Country. The frontier magistrate who spends a quiet lifetime as a servant of Empire, “waiting for the barbarians” to arrive (“Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? / Those people were a kind of solution,” Cavafy says in the poem from which the title of the book is taken), and finally tries to reenact their shame and suffering, could have been a poem by Donne.

André Brink (to judge by his books) writes fast. Five long novels in less than ten years—two of them novels of epic intention and mock-epic consequences. Brink writes with a kind of high, wide, moral exuberance, riding the waves of South Africa’s painful history like a Laguna Beach surfer. Inhumanity is tonic to his prose, much as it is for the critics who admire him. Like them, he is a man of bludgeoning themes. One reads Brink conscious always of some sort of important moral purpose, whereas one reads Coetzee conscious (sometimes too conscious) of artistic purpose. Coetzee, with his affecting, schoolish idea that art illuminates, that writerly disciplines clarify, believes that his distressing subject is really no more “interesting” as literature, no more impressive, than the crack in the golden bowl. He writes about disaster, but he has no strong appetite for it. If anything, he suffers from what Irving Howe, reviewing Waiting for the Barbarians in The New York Times, called the tyranny of his subject:

Imagine what it must be like to live as a serious writer in South Africa…the feeling that one’s life is mortgaged to a society gone rotten with hatred, an indignation that exhausts itself into depression, the fear that one’s anger may overwhelm and destroy one’s fiction.

Mortgage is the right word. South African fiction is mortgaged to apartheid. By now, it constitutes a sort of genre in itself—about race in the same deadly folkloristic way that Breton fiction, say, is about the sea or sorcery. Coetzee’s parable of a nameless magistrate crossing the frontiers of a nameless empire to return a tortured barbarian girl to her people—a pilgrim on a doomed expiatory quest—takes that genre frankly to its limit. Brink’s “historical” chain of voices—masters and slaves on the occasion of a failed slave rebellion in 1825—escapes into melodrama.

A few years ago a young Johannesburg theater company, The Junction Avenue. Theatre Company, wrote and produced a fine little play called The Fantastical History of a Useless Man. The useless man is white, English-speaking, South African—and useless:

After matric I went overseas. Everybody told me, that’s where the real culture is, overseas. I mean do we ever see anything great here? Like the Beatles or the Stones? No, Nothing!… I couldn’t understand one thing. If this was the case, the truth, what the hell were all these people doing here? If the truth and the life and the art is six thousand miles away, what are we doing here? I asked all these people who taught me what they were doing here and they refused to answer.

Overseas”—the anthropologist Vincent Crapanzano points this out in his new book—is where white South Africans go to find themselves because, in the end, they really do not know what they are doing at home or who they are besides players in a futile local drama2 They may claim the land of South Africa but, as Crapanzano says, it is the idea of themselves as Europeans that compels and confuses them and makes their claim so loaded. Overseas, of course, means a kind of liberty that has very little to do with the realities of home—which may be why even the best South African novelists find it difficult to write convincingly about it. South African novelists—good ones and not-so-good ones—cannot take much of a vacation from the home truths of the tragic landscape they inhabit. They tend to flatten other landscapes into the black and white of their experience, or to dress them up in all the gorgeous colors of their fantasies.

In a way, history is André Brink’s “overseas.” He writes historical novels the way other people travel. (Curiously, he is quite respected in South Africa as a travel writer.) An Instant in the Wind, his second book, is based on Cape Town archives from the middle of the eighteenth century having to do with a runaway slave and a young white woman, the survivor of a scientific trek into the interior, whom the slave rescues and returns home. The slave uprising that was the source material, so to speak, for A Chain of Voices took place on the farms of two Afrikaner brothers in 1825. Brink is earnest in his elaborations, but the books are really an exercise in what might be called apartheid gothic. They are costume dramas of the present, naïve reversals of experiments with Aeschylus in blue jeans as generation-gap tragedy or Parsifal after Hiroshima or Macbeth as a senior partner in Sullivan and Cromwell.

History is a place that André Brink is not at home in because he is basically unworldly. He is unable to apprehend the past in any but the forms and tones and meanings of his own exceptional experience as a South African in 1982, the forms of a familiar but distorted world. His best work fights this need to turn the traumas of the present into the great dramas of an imagined past. A Dry White Season, his last novel before A Chain of Voices, told a quiet story fairly quietly—a white schoolteacher helps a black school janitor whose son has been officially “missing” since the riots in Soweto, and he is threatened and harassed and finally killed. In its way it was an eloquent book, catching the movement of ordinary lives into an extraordinary world where yesterday can disappear without a trace and the state can compose “realities” that utterly deny the proven and the true and white dissidents go mad or vanish or take up safe garden-party outrage in Houghton or Constantia.

Not so A Chain of Voices. The novel yearns backward. It “crosses the color bar” as the South Africans put it, by way of aching loins (“it was the time of the month when desire sears my womb like a flame”) and ramrod penises (“that member always denied, now discovered in wonder at its brutal hardness”). The (forgive me) climax of the book is a climax, a witless and unwitting parody of white racist fantasies about black potency. To quote the Good White Woman in the hayloft with the Brave Black Man: “He lunges, thrusts, hammers, pounds in silent frenzy, impaling me, cleaving me, sundering and slaughtering me, setting me free forever, unbearably.” Surely, this makes an odd last word for a novel about slavery and rebellion and insane oppression that ends with half the characters dead or dying. Brink may have an honorable imagination, but his instincts are shrewd. He has written a potboiler of oppression. His singular triumph (besides having got away with this embarrassing prose) was to insult blacks and whites with such feverish impartiality.

  1. 1

    Penguin, 1982, 144 pp., $4.95.

  2. 2

    Waiting, by Vincent Crapanzano, to be published next year by Random House.

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