Sunday, June 8, 2008


J.M. Coetzee won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2003. His Nobel lecture took the form of a short story. The Nobel committee lauded Coetzee -- "who in innumerable guises portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider" -- for a body of work that includes Waiting for the Barbarians, a book I consistently recommend whenever someone asks: "Read any good books lately?"

Coetzee is a polarizing writer. I've met a number of people who strongly can't stand his work. (Atwood seems to have the same effect.) Coetzee's fault, in the mind of these readers, seems to be the "coldness" of his prose. His standoffish tone. His clinical assessments of people and environments. This is only a broad, general assessment, of course, and other readers find in those qualities Coetzee's aesthetic strengths.

I am among this latter group. Reading Coetzee, I am reminded what it was like to first read Orwell. These writers, I think, provide a shock of illusions peeled away, which is, of course, another reason why people dislike Coetzee. Illusions help societies function. Scraping away illusions in discomforting. Reading Coetzee is often discomforting. Those who read for entertainment, or comfort (reassuring stories about people like them), find in Coetzee a prototypical writer to avoid.

WAITING FOR BARBARIANS is a novel about the limits of imperial assumptions. Here's the plot summary from Wikipedia:

The story is set in small frontier town of a nameless empire. The town's magistrate is the story's main protagonist and narrator. His rather peaceful existence on the frontier comes to an end with the arrival of some special forces of the Empire, led by a sinister Colonel Joll. There are rumours that the barbarians are preparing an attack on the Empire, and so Colonel Joll and his men conduct an expedition into the land beyond the frontier. They capture a number of "barbarians," bring them back to town, torture them, kill some of them, and leave for the capital in order to prepare a larger campaign against the barbarians. In the meantime, the Magistrate becomes involved with a "barbarian girl" who was left behind crippled and blinded by the torturers. Eventually, he decides to take her back to her people. After a life-threatening trip through the barren land, he returns to his village. Shortly thereafter, the Empire's forces return and the Magistrate's own plight begins.

In short, the novel asks the readers to wonder who are the barbarians? Readers will be led to unsetting possible conclusions.

Coetzee mines similar questions in a book I've just finished, Inner Workings: Essays 2000-2005. These essays show the same penchant for precision as Coetzee's fiction, though one must say that they also demonstrate a lighter touch and a trace of a sense of humour.

The essay on Philip Roth's THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA is so comprehensive, one almost wonders if there is anything left to say. Coetzee also provides sensitive readings of works (and careers) by Nadine Gordimer, Saul Bellow, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and V.S. Naipaul.

At the heart of the book for me, however, was a series of essays about German-Austrian writers, only one of whom I've read: Robert Walser, Robert Musil, Walter Benjamin, Bruno Schulz, Joseph Roth and Sandor Marai. Coetzee provides a concise, though fulsome, summary of each writer's work, career and interests. Taken together, the essays also demonstrate an interest of Coetzee's: how writers adapt, respond to, write within (pick your own verb cluster) ... the decline (and end) of empire, culture, civilization, the world as one knows it.

The culture collapse that haunted the above writers was the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The other thing that haunted them, of course, was the rise of the Nazis (no hyperlink needed). Which isn't to say that Coetzee tracks the end of empire and the rise of facism. Or that he equates empire with civilization: the author of WAITING FOR BARBARIANS would never do that. What he presents instead is an examination of group of sophisticated writers who lived through the collapse of their culture, the end of their system of meaning, and the rise of different systems of meaning ... or often just chaos and senselessness (specifically, the holocaust).

Coetzee, we'll note, is a white South African who has recently changed his permanent residence to Australia. INNER WORKINGS makes no reference to these autobiographical details. The themes of Coetzee's essays may only coincidentally align with his life. In any case, what does it matter? The theme of the end of meaning and the rise of senselessness is one all of us need to attend to. Perhaps more, in the 21st century, than ever.

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