In the Garrison

Waiting for the Barbarians

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

J. M. Coetzee
J. M. Coetzee; drawing by David Levine

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…

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