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 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.

Brink’s brave black man is a slave called Galant. He leads the other slaves in their rebellion. His dreams are as big as his penis—and as often thwarted. He is nature’s aristocrat. He (forgive me again) rises from each humiliation, each torment, with his resolve unbroken. He believes in his own emancipation. A slave named Bet, who loves Galant and bears his child, reads to him at great risk from old Cape Town newspapers about the freedom that is coming. Bet shares his pain in slavery, but she cannot restore him. The black woman cannot satisfy the black man’s longing. (Another white fantasy?) Her warmth, her surrender, is a mirror of his own submission.

Galant recoils from Bet, and later from Pamela, the slave who replaces her as his lover. Sexual healing is the province of the white woman. In this case, the white woman is an orphan called Hester Van der Merwe, another natural aristocrat. Hester belongs to her brutal Afrikaner husband, Barend, in much the same way as Barend’s slaves belong to him. Once, she loved her husband’s brother, Nicolaas, but he betrayed her by renouncing her with a truly violent cowardice. In the end, Galant “sets her free” just as his own revolution fails. Poor André Brink—trying so hard to enlighten his benighted countrymen and himself so much the victim of their clichés. The Afrikaners in power now in South Africa feed their paranoia on fantasies of a revolution whose necessary end is the black man fucking the white woman in the hayloft while the farm burns. Brink feeds his faith in a better future with the same fantasy. But I doubt that for the black men of South Africa ten minutes with a white woman is the promised land, the end of all suffering, the raison d’être of revolution, the meaning of freedom.

Brink tells his story by “voices”—the chain of voices of the title. (In France, for some reason, the book was called Un Turbulent Silence.) His voices—there are a lot of them, black and white, male and female—are the revolution’s cast and its narrators, and most of them are the same sonorous voice. It is hard to tell them apart. With their weighty cadence, they would do well in a big Biblical movie from the 1950s—black and white Victor Matures.

Most of them end up more caricature than character. There is the European drifter with his sly radical incitements. There is the old black grandmother with her litany of witness to the cycles of season and oppression. There is the frigid Afrikaner wife who trembles in ecstasy beating slaves, and who, naturally, is shot in the crotch when her slaves rebel rather than in the heart, say, or the stomach. There is Hester, freed by orphanhood of bad blood and birthright. There are the white brothers Nicolaas and Barend—models of impotence and brutality. And there is the gallant Galant who shoots the cowardly Nicolaas’s first lion for him and saves his life in a mountain storm and sacrifices his women to him and then turns out to be (probably) half white after all—brother, in fact, to the white brother who torments him.

Brothers are another convention in South Africa, as persistent and over-wrought a theme as redemptive intercourse between a white woman and a black man. (It is interesting that the equation is rarely white man/black woman when the theme is liberation or identity.) The convention holds that black boy and white boy are raised as brothers, and then, at the onset of puberty and, with it, masculine authority, the two are separated, the brotherhood violated, the deception exposed, and the white boy estranged and the black embittered by betrayal. Brink is obviously not alone in believing in brothers; it is as hard to find a South African story about black and white boys who grow up together on a farm bating each other as it is to find a story about Voortrekkers who beat their slaves and then go home to a cozy dinner with a loving wife. Brink is just more carried away than most. “White brother” Nicolaas betrays his “black brother” Galant as a boy, and as a man he throws him in jail, beats him senseless on every occasion, takes his women for concubines, kills his baby—and then frets incessantly about “the irreparable moment, when I changed from your mate into your master…[and] finally destroyed my own freedom.”

In a way it is soothing to believe in childhood camaraderies that belong to a purer order of reality. It means that adult antagonisms must belong to some other, necessary social order that life imposes. There are Afrikaners who can read the Bible as an apartheid tract and still imagine Eden as an integrated garden where no one over the age of thirteen is admitted—that is, where there is no sex and so no miscegenation or even the idea of miscegenation. On the other hand, I have never heard a white South African woman talk about being raised as “sister” to a black girl attached to her family—the maid’s daughter, say, or the gardener’s. The guilt of white South African women—those who have guilt—may stop at the kitchen where the maid they pay eight rand for an eighty-hour week is scrubbing the floor, but they have few fantasies of a golden girlhood age when they and the maid played together and shared their secrets, oblivious to the passbook and color-bar world that would one day separate them. Those women are perhaps ashamed, but they do not pretend that adulthood and its injustices were forced upon their innocence like milk of magnesia or lima beans.

Peter Sacks, a young white South African poet who teaches at Johns Hopkins, says that most of the good writing by whites in his country now is about endings, about decoding the future—as if “black” were a secret text that might explain to the white man the annihilation of his identity and give that annihilation meaning. “It’s about suffering. How to end suffering. And it ends in suffering,” Rosa Burger says in Nadine Gordimer’s novel Burger’s Daughter. The Afrikaner Mehring, in Gordimer’s The Conservationist, runs to his unknown ending on a Johannesburg mine dump. Maureen Smales, the white housewife in July’s People, runs toward the noise of an unseen helicopter. The endings in Gordimer’s novels seem to say that there can be no “ending” to a South African story anymore, no meaning, no decoding, no relief for ordinary liberal people like Maureen Smales—only flight and defection. J.M. Coetzee, on the other hand, is a decoder. The temptations of defection which haunt Gordimer’s work have little interest for him. He writes as if the act of writing will eventually yield up the future, and he writes, in English, as an Afrikaner for whom “ending” is inevitable and resolution impossible and the only redemption, maybe even the only sanity, is a kind of knowledge. Cavafy wrote:

…night has fallen and the bar- barians haven’t come
And some of our men just in from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.

Coetzee starts there. The soldiers of his Empire try to locate the barbarians by fighting. The torturers of his Empire try to locate the barbarians through agony. (Torturers, as Jacobo Timerman says, do not torture to know the victim’s secrets, but to know the victim, through his pain.) The barbarians are stubborn. Neither subjugation nor violation exposes them. The soldier and the torturer must invent their own ending, their perverse history, while the Magistrate, in his garrison town at the edge of Empire, “dreams of ends: dreams not of how to live but of how to die.” Dreaming, he betrays his Empire, with its rhythms of catastrophe and survival: “One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong an era.”

Coetzee’s Empire is a wasteland of swamps and deserts and desolate mountain ranges that offers its topography as stations of failure on the Magistrate’s grotesque version of a pilgrim’s progress into the soul of the barbarian. The Magistrate is an old man, but he is drawn to the frontier. He likes to dig in the ruins of what might have been another, older civilization or a lost pantheon or a fort against barbarians, or maybe even a city that barbarians themselves had built in an age when barbarians were the respectable and mighty people who entered history and had their own empire and their own soldiers and torturers. He collects the little slips of poplar wood he finds in the ruins—strange wooden slips covered with characters which the Magistrate studies every night as if those characters made up the secret text that would release him. He knows, of course, that they might just as easily be the records of another garrison, the deliberations of another magistrate waiting in the ground to comfort an old servant of an empire in the throes of its history, a topsy-turvy empire in which yesterday was summer and today children play in the snow and filthy “fishing people”—not dissident outsiders like the barbarians but natural parasites of Empire—come out at night to steal the leavings of both barbarians and conquerors.

The Magistrate asks, what do the barbarians have to do with Empire? They prove that Empire exists. They give Empire a geography to describe with maps and to protect with fortresses and patrols. They give Empire something to do. They take Empire out of real time and create its necessary jagged rhythms of rise and fall and disaster. This is why Empire is so uneasy when the barbarians disappear over the mountains for very long, mocking history, leaving only reality behind. This is why the soldiers ride out looking for the barbarians to please their colonel, Colonel Joll, an emissary from the capital who might have arrived yesterday from Jan Vorster Square or from Berlin forty years ago. This is why Colonel Joll brings “doctors of pain” to torment the barbarians into existence. “There is a certain tone,” he tells the Magistrate. “A certain tone enters the voice of a man who is telling the truth. Training and experience teach us to recognize that tone.”

At first, the Magistrate demurs. “Of the screaming which people afterwards claim to have heard from the grainery, I hear nothing,” he says. He prefers the warm-summer-evening noises of his sleepy garrison town. But he is drawn to the tortured. He wants to decipher them, the way he wants to decipher the 256 slips of poplar wood from his excavations. He has counted the slips, again and again, to be certain of them. There are always 256 slips, never more, never less, and the pure reality of this in a world of colonels and barbarians surprises and delights him and gives him a kind of confidence. Now he counts cuts on the groin of a barbarian boy who was brought to the settlement by his grandfather to see a doctor but is questioned all the same—little flicks of a torturer’s knife—on the conscientious Colonel’s orders. The Magistrate observes that

once in every generation, without fail, there is an episode of hysteria about the barbarians. There is no woman living along the frontier who has not dreamed of a dark barbarian hand coming from under the bed to grip her ankle, no man who has not frightened himself with visions of the barbarians carousing in his home, breaking the plates, setting fire to the curtains, raping his daughters. These dreams are the consequence of too much ease.

The barbarism against the barbarians turns the town to winter. A girl with the straight black eyebrows and glossy hair of the barbarians kneels by the barracks wall, begging. Her feet are broken. Her eyes are burned blind by a torturer’s fork. The gray-haired Magistrate takes her home. She whimpers in her sleep, but otherwise she is silent, submissive, even compliant. The Magistrate begins to study her too. He bathes her feet, he massages her breasts and belly and legs with oil.

It has been growing more and more clear to me that until the marks on this girl’s body are deciphered and understood I cannot let go of her…. “Nothing is worse than what we can imagine,” I mumble. She gives no sign that she has even heard me. I slump on the couch, drawing her down beside me, yawning. “Tell me,” I want to say, “don’t make a mystery of it, pain is only pain….”

She yields to everything without yielding herself.

Tracing her scars, kneading her broken feet, the Magistrate makes the barbarian girl the prisoner of his concern, of his obsessive ministrations. What he wants from her is not forgiveness or love. He wants to touch the source of her pain, believing as he does that pain exposed will be the secret that separates and binds them.

But with this woman it is as if there is no interior, only a surface across which I hunt back and forth seeking entry. Is this how her torturers felt hunting their secret, whatever they thought it was? For the first time I feel a dry pity for them: how natural a mistake to believe that you can burn or tear or hack your way into the secret body of the other! The girl lies in my bed, but there is no good reason why it should be a bed. I behave in some ways like a lover…but I might equally tie her to a chair and beat her, it would be no less intimate.

Finally the barbarian girl is (if the word applies) merry. Sitting in the square in her black hooded cloak, she builds a garrison of snow, copying their town, house by house, leaving out the people. She likes her snow town without snowmen. She asks for satisfactions that distress the Magistrate in their ordinariness. Food and sleep. She would like the balm, the pleasure, of sexual love, but the old Magistrate’s ministrations are a quest, not a desire. He does not have the simple power to restore her that a fire in the hearth does, or a warm bed, or a downy quilt around her shoulders. This is what drives him—like the torturer, like the Empire both of them represent—to such terrible failed intimacies.

Yet, like the white man who loves the imagined Africa of his ideology but not the real Africa nursing its poverty and its vengeance in Soweto’s shanties, the Magistrate has a horror of the “triumph of the barbarian way: intellectual torpor, slovenliness, tolerance of disease and death.” He knows the barbarians would not attend to the documents of Empire as he attends to the mysterious wooden slips of his excavations. The barbarians, beyond the pale of Empire, have no ending to decode, but they have no interest in decoding, either.

The Magistrate’s atonement—he leads a party of conscripts out into the frontier to return the girl to her tribe—is of course gratuitous, but because of this it becomes the first real intimacy between them. The barbarians lead his party on—a ragged, mounted band appearing in the distance and suddenly disappearing into sandstorms or across mountains—and finally ride out from a gully to accept the girl. Then, just once, the Magistrate asks the girl to come back with him to the safety of Empire. He tells her this is what he wants. She asks him, “Why?”

The Magistrate returns alone to reenact the girl’s suffering, not in absolution but in repetition. Repetition is the only meaning of which this old servant of Empire is certain. He is arrested by Colonel Joll for conspiring with the barbarians. His precious wooden slips are produced as evidence of a barbarian battle plan—to be decoded. He is imprisoned and tortured. He is starved. He lives in his own excrement. He is paraded naked in the garrison yard, humiliated before the garrison children. The Colonel tells him that his slips are of no interest any more, that they are very likely just gambling sticks from some frontier barbarian tribe. The warrant officer in charge of his torture teaches him how pain can make him skip or dance or jump or sing far beyond his endurance. He puts the Magistrate in a woman’s smock and hangs him from a tree, taunts him until he falls, hangs him again by the wrists. The Magistrate swings as the muscles in his shoulders tear.

His agony is a kind of flight. His bellows sound to him like pouring gravel. “He is calling his barbarian friends,” someone observes. “That is barbarian language you hear.” The townspeople who have come to amuse themselves with his torture laugh and go back to their houses. He is beneath their notice now. Empire has reduced him to the dry screams of an old man swinging from a tree, and now it has no use for him, no feeling for him, and no fear, either. No one even bothers to lock him up any longer.

His final humiliation is to be let go. He mocks himself, mocks his suffering, telling his story for his supper, turning his gestures of expiation into the weakness of a senile and besotted lover. He squats cleaning fish with the fisherfolk. He sleeps in the fisherfolk’s camp. This is what torture can accomplish. Torture does not turn magistrates into barbarians but into fisherfolk who live in filth and grovel—begging favors, stealing scraps—in the shadow of a tyrant’s walls. It turns magistrates into savages, and savages pose no threats to Empire. It is the freedom of barbarians that can destroy an empire, not the sly violence of a savage.

Gradually, the garrison empties. The colonel’s men disappear into the frontier. They are hunting barbarians. They pass through the town once more, fleeing something—no one really knows if they are fleeing barbarians or their failure to find barbarians—and then the town quiets and begins to recover. The Magistrate, in a way, recovers, too—his house, his work, his pleasure in walking through the square on a nice night, greeting neighbors, even some of his old authorities. He often thinks of the barbarian girl:

Whom will that…girl with the blind face remember: me with my silk robe and my dim lights and my perfumes and oils and my unhappy pleasures, or that other cold man with the mask over his eyes who gave the orders and pondered the sounds of her intimate pain? Whose was the last face she saw plainly on this earth but the face behind the glowing iron? Though I cringe with shame, even here and now, I must ask myself whether, when I lay head to foot with her, fondling and kissing those broken ankles, I was not in my heart of hearts regretting that I could not engrave myself on her as deeply…. From the very first she knew me for a false seducer…. For I was not, as I liked to think, the indulgent pleasure-loving opposite of the cold rigid Colonel. I was the lie that Empire tells itself when times are easy, he the truth that Empire tells when harsh winds blow.

The seasons change. The dust storms and sandstorms blow over and the winds calm, and suddenly there are children playing in the square again, making a snowman. “It is not a bad snowman,” the Magistrate says, watching them, but it is not the ending he dreamed of and “like much else nowadays I leave it feeling stupid, like a man who lost his way long ago but presses on along a road that may lead nowhere.”

This Issue

December 2, 1982