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J(ohn) M. Coetzee 1940–
South African novelist and translator.
Coetzee examines in his fiction the moral implications of South Africa's history, prompting some critics to interpret his work as political allegory. In the postmodernist manner, he creates ambiguities of space and time. Critics especially praise Coetzee for the surreal landscapes and intense, brooding mood of his recent novels, From the Heart of the Country and Waiting for the Barbarians.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)
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Dusklands is among the first truly modern novels in English written and published in South Africa. Doris Lessing and Dan Jacobson left their homelands many years ago and have abandoned southern African subject matter; Nadine Gordimer, Alan Paton and others continue to write well and conservatively and are published abroad. Although the Afrikaans-speaking section of this country has always been equated with conservatism, it is the Afrikaans novelists who were the pioneers in the field of the avant-garde novel. Calling themselves "Sestigers," men of the sixties, they modeled their works on the novels of France, Germany, Holland of the previous decade. Again paradoxically, since Afrikaners are the main exponents of white South African nationalism, the Sestigers rarely chose a truly South African background or wrote of matters of immediate South African concern.
In both respects J. M. Coetzee has taken a lead. Dusklands consists of two short novellas, the second of which ["The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee"] is based on a historical incident involving a white explorer among the Hottentots in the eighteenth century. It is the tale of the individual savageness of modern civilization pitted against the collective savageness of the untamed. The first story ["The Vietnam Project"], by way of analogy, deals with an American specialist in psychological warfare working "in the spirit of absoluteness," "of intellectual ferocity," on a cold-blooded propaganda project to destroy Vietnam.
By publishing the two stories side by side, Coetzee has deliberately given a wider horizon to his South African subject. Left on its own, "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee" would immediately have suggested yet another tale of African black-white confrontation to the reader. Coetzee poises society against the individual and finds that the one, even in its most primitive state, can maintain its continuity, whereas the other succumbs under the limits of single human endeavor. (pp. 459-60)
J. M. Coetzee's choice of a story about his ancestor was surely not an arbitary one…. Like many South Africans, he wishes to trace the guilt of the white man to its base, and indeed by widening his scope in the two novellas, to explore the guilt and duty of the individual in the Western world.Coetzee exhibits considerable skill in writing convincingly in the first person of characters whose ideas are often repugnant to him. Coetzee exhibits considerable skill in writing con-vincingly in the first person of characters whose ideas are often repugnant to him. The narration often runs dissonantly alongside the action, subtly suggesting the cynical voice of the author in the background. At times, however, the style becomes uneven, and there is an uneasy feeling that the author has overreached himself in his attempt at subtlety. A certain amount of experimentation, it seems, must needs be swallowed along with originality, especially in a first novel. One should accept, I feel, that the author is sincere in seeking a new and complex medium as the only means to express complex thought. (p. 460)
Ursula A. Barnett, "South Africa: 'Dusklands'," in Books Abroad (copyright 1976 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 50, No. 2, Spring, 1976, pp. 459-60.
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The pivotal event of J. M. Coetzee's second novel, In the Heart of the Country
(This entire section contains 565 words.)
In the Heart of the Country [published in the United States as From the Heart of the Country], is a cross-cultural seduction. Isolated and repressed since the death of his wife, a white South African sheepfarmer takes a desperate "lunge towards happiness" when he wins over with gifts, and finally brings into his own home, the young wife of his black foreman Hendrik. The act not only violates racial codes, but incites jealousy and madness in his devoted daughter Magda…. [Madga] shoots her father, disposes of the body, and throws open the farmhouse to Hendrik and his wife. Social codes are now further subverted as Hendrik rapes Magda, takes to wearing the "baas's clothes", and departs only when suspicious neighbours begin to investigate his master's disappearance. Magda is left alone….
This is the essential narrative, but in the novel it is filtered through Magda's consciousness—which is Mr Coetzee's chief interest. And since Magda is in some sense disturbed, the narrative is necessarily more disturbed than has been indicated. For the first few pages we are led to believe that Magda's father has not taken another man's wife but has brought home his own "new bride": the "parricide and pseudo-matricide" which follow function as a kind of preliminary mime to the main action, but also cast doubt on its authenticity…. The last pages compound [uncertainties by suggesting that Magda's whole story is an invention]….
The uncertainties of In the Heart of the Country are, given this central character, inevitable. But they also indicate that Mr Coetzee, in the tradition of postmodernist novelists, is concerned to raise questions about the relationship between the world and the word. Magda may be author of the text, but the text is also author of her…. Like the veld with which she is constantly identified, Magda is more "absence" than presence…. Self-expression is therefore as important to her…. as it is to the "brown folk" enslaved by her father: both parties, if they are to assert themselves, need to find a language independent of the colonial heritage. When, on the last page of her monologue, Magda refuses to write traditional elegies to the landscape, the suggestion is that she has succeeded in throwing off her past and in discovering her own identity.
The structure of the novel—266 numbered sections with a discernible narrative but no chronological sequence—is again traceable to its central character, for Magda's is not clock time, but what she calls "the blind subjective time of the heart". Whole chunks of her childhood are missing but the rape is described in several different versions so as to indicate Magda's obsession with the kind of intercourse (both sexual and social) which has been forbidden to her.
Magda's obsessions, as she herself acknowledges, inevitably bring certain constrictions and confusions to the narrative: unchecked by irony or humour, hers is at worst "a history so tedious in the telling that it might as well be a history of silence". Certainly the interminable questing and questioning are considerably less finely handled than her responses to the physical world. Nevertheless Mr Coetzee manages through her to present a powerful image of outdated conventions and of the struggle to erode them.
Blake Morrison, "Veldschmerz," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3932, July 22, 1977, p. 900.
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[In the Heart of the Country] is a novel that transcends nagging pragmatism. Its intensity of imagery and language, and its vivid, self-enclosed territory, make it the most original book I have read for a long time….
It is a difficult novel to describe. Every paragraph is numbered, which has the effect of creating a series of slight separations, slowly down one's reading speed. This is necessary, as the book, which is short, is as concentrated as a collection of African spices. Coetzee teaches linguistics, and has found a format in which to try to harness both his philosophical speculations and his passion for words. If I have any doubts, they are related to the last half of the book: intrusions of overemphasis in a sex scene, a striving to touch the boundaries of individual perception that almost topples the structure of the book. But the faults are of ambition, not pretension.
Paddy Kitchen, "Death in the Head" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1977; reprinted by permission of Paddy Kitchen), in The Listener, Vol. 98, No. 2522, August 18, 1977, p. 223.∗
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[One] cannot help admiring the technical artistry of J. M. Coetzee's lyrical puzzle, In the Heart of the Country…. Patricide, rape, incest and miscegenation are not exactly unexplored themes in South African writing, though rarely have they been treated as hauntingly as in Coetzee's novel. The unnamed heroine's "monologue of the self" (as she refers to her tale) recapitulates her violent murder of her white father out of jealousy for his affair with his African workman's wife. Then after the burial of her father, the daughter begins an affair with the husband of her father's African mistress—thus duplicating the relationship she had previously abhorred. When the African couple begin to fear that they will be held responsible for their white employer's death, they run away, and the daughter is left alone on her decaying and isolated farm on the veld. At the end of the narrative the author suggests that the entire story may have been the fantasy of a deranged consciousness…. In the Heart of the Country is a perplexing novel, to be sure, but also a fascinating novelistic exercise in the use of cinematic techniques in prose fiction. The reader feels as though he is observing a series of stills extracted from a motion picture, each one overlapping with and canceling the image of the earlier one. (pp. 245-46)
Charles R. Larson, "Anglophone Writing from Africa and Asia," in World Literature Today (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 52, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 245-47.∗
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[Dusklands] was a most authentic sounding diary of an early explorer, a device which allowed [Coetzee] to show the jelling of rigid attitudes and the props needed to establish and maintain the master/servant relationship, which is still the crutch of the South African establishment.
[From the Heart of the Country] continues this probe. Bold in concept, it purports to be the diary of a spinster on an isolated and unspecified desert sheep farm…. The reader soon realizes that these are the untrustworthy ravings of a hysterical, demented individual consumed by loneliness and her love/hate relationship with her patriarchal father…. Her ravings are so unreliable that it is hard to know what to believe, and she herself is drawn into a physically degrading yet spiritually enriching relationship with the [husband of her father's mistress].
What the book is about basically is a spiritual search for God, for a reaching out beyond the restrictions imposed by Calvinism; but above all it is a search for the self. I can hardly recall a work more steeped in the authentic and historical South African situation. Over it all hangs a brooding intensity, intermixed with a crazy humor. Coetzee is not one for easy answers or for cashing in on the market for the slick novel on the South African "racial problem." Thank goodness.
Barend J. Toerien, "South Africa: 'From the Heart of the Country'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 52, No. 3, Summer, 1978, p. 510.
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Three generations of writers, white and black, have tried to arouse South Africans to a recognition of what they saw as a growing spiritual and moral aridity and a tighter political extremism resulting from the systems of apartheid. Now it is 1980, thousands of printed protest pages later, and the National government is still in power, having grown unwieldy and corrupt, but not seriously challenged by white opposition parties and, so far, capable of destroying black opposition before it finds a voice or, having found one, has disseminated any message. (p. 19)
With these irrefutable realities before me, and the constant comments of political scientists on the suicidal stupidity of white South Africa, I ask myself, who are we, we blind and paralysed white South Africans? And coincidentally, it is just at this time that I begin to find my answers in the novel, specifically in four recently published South African works: Nadine Gordimer's The Conservationist, Jack Cope's My Son Max, John Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country, and Peter Wilhelm's The Dark Wood….
[These] four works present major deviations in form and content from what we have come to expect from the South African novel. The structures of the four novels resemble each other while they differ in essence from the traditional structures of social realism with which we associate South African works of fiction. In all four there is a fragmented narrative and a movement away from exterior description to prolonged internalization of character, in the process of which reality attenuates, shifts, and blends with fantasy. These authors are no longer saying to their countrymen, with Paton and Fugard, Andre Brink, La Guma and others, "Look at what you are doing!" Rather, they are looking inward and saying, "This is who we are: this is why we are still maintaining or silently condoning our system." These novels of self-exposure evoke, moreover, justly or unjustly, an accusation of collusion directed towards some of the black people, portraying their tolerance of apartheid as a result of economic backwardness, ignorance, simple insanity, or of a misguided tendresse humaine. (p. 20)
We are being called upon by these writers to take a clear and unsentimental look at a system that is undoubtedly perpetuated by the unchangeable docility, indifference or acquiescence of a large number of people, mostly whites but also blacks, who have been so well conditioned that they cannot visualize and therefore cannot work towards anything different. (p. 24)
Magda, the woman in In the Heart of the Country, is physically confined to the reduced topography of her farm, confessing that she was willingly "corrupted to the bone with the beauty of this forsaken world" and that she had chosen her own destiny which was "to die here in the petrified garden, behind locked gates."… (p. 29)
[Her] thoughts range widely, merging reality with fantasy, composing and recomposing domestic dramas for herself to act in and, eventually introducing voices … to speak to her from the skies. She imagines that the voices accuse her, among other things, of transforming her uneventful life into a fiction. They say that because there are no actual enemies to attack her, no "hordes of brown horsemen" pouring out of the hills "waving their bows and ululating,"… she has made herself her own enemy. Magda protests that her life as a good daughter to a farmer is less plausible than the one she invents for herself and that:
as for inventing enemies, the pitiful warrior in the hills was never as formidable as the enemy who walked in our shadow and said Yes baas. To the slave who would only say Yes my father could only say No, and I after him, and that was the start of all my woe….
Her woe, expressed in real or invented events, is her relationship with the coloured people on the farm. She asks, towards the end of her narrative, "Where, unless compassion intervenes, does the round of vindictiveness end?"… But because by that stage she has taken us through accounts of lust and rape, bullying, spite and violence, and two murders of her father imaginatively conceived in the minutest bloody detail, we doubt her ability to recognize or give true compassion. In fact, she is much more believable when she speaks of the isolation and, therefore, the inviolate absolutism, of the whites living on the farm…. [She declares] that all she asks for is "to be at home in the world as the merest Beast is at home," but … she can never be at home in a world where there is an unbridgeable distance between herself and the other human beings peopling it. She can only continue, as she has done in her narration, to toy with ideas of living closely and sensually with the brown people, while in reality retaining her isolation….
There is no change, no movement, no development in the life lived on "the stone farm"—a symbol of the whole country. Only in her unfettered thoughts can Magda visualize forcing change by destroying her father, the overlord, and integrating fully with the slaves. But even her thoughts fail her since the life she mentally projects is far from happy. She is treated with fear and suspicion by the "freed" brown people, then handled with hatred and cruelty and, finally, deserted. Thus, even the imagination of the white South African breaks down and cannot fantasize satisfaction for desires of sisterhood and wifehood with women and men of darker skins.
Magda insists that she must create a life for herself, if only mentally, or indeed perish—"the woman who in a certain sense is me, will dwindle and expire here in the heart of the country unless she has at least a thin porridge of event to live on."… This "thin porridge of event" is however the most dramatic of situations conceivable on such a deserted farm. She visualizes her father bringing home a new wife,… a woman who is everything Magda is not. Imagining herself goaded by jealousy, she rehearses in grim detail a scene in which she murders both father and wife with an axe as they lie sleeping in bed. (pp. 29-30)
But the practical difficulties of cleaning up the mess now arise in her imagination, and cause her to abandon this fantasy and begin another, different but similar. Now she bestows on Hendrik, the coloured farm worker, a new young wife, Klein Anna, who very soon becomes the object of Magda's father's lust. When the father takes Klein Anna to his bed, having bribed Hendrik with brandy, Magda once again commits murder, this time shooting her father with a shotgun.
At one level of interpretation, the reader might begin to see the stone farm at this point as South Africa itself, the father as the Afrikaner baas, and Magda as the ineffectual, dreaming liberal…. Once rid of her father, she envisages drawing the brown people close to her with bonds of kindness and affection. But they are only deeply discomforted. They will not help her bury the corpse of her father, during which dreadful task she muses, "There has never been anyone to see what goes on here. We are outside the law, therefore live only by the law we recognize in ourselves, going by our inner voice,"… this statement reflecting the truly inhuman autonomy assumed for themselves by white South Africans.
Magda's fantasies always eventually ground themselves in the problems of actual living, whereafter she must abandon them. In this case, she knows that without the father there will be no money; without money she cannot pay Hendrik and Klein Anna. No longer recompensed for their labours, they, and particularly Hendrik, become insolent and abusive. Magda is repeatedly subjected to cold sexual assaults by Hendrik, and is finally abandoned on the derelict farm by both servants. Realizing that if she were in fact so isolated she would degenerate into a beast, she creates voices to speak to her. In this way she absorbs herself in a philosophical discussion of the nature of slavery, of solitude, of the value of language and of God himself.
Towards the completion of her narrative, she reverts to the realities of her life, and so we leave her …, eternally talking, narrating, reliving, inventing—just as the whole of South African literature has been doing for its deaf audiences—but also forever herself, preconditioned to a life in her forsaken world, a world that she cannot or will not change. (pp. 30-1)
Sheila Roberts, "Character and Meaning in Four Contemporary South African Novels," in World Literature Written in English (© copyright 1980 WLWE-World Literature Written in English), Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 19-36.∗
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[Dusklands] includes two separate pieces of novella length—"The Vietnam Project" and "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee." The former deals with a Californian who works for a think-tank group which is developing new ways to undermine the bases of Vietnamese culture in 1973; he gradually is going mad in the course of the task. Though there are sound psychological insights on what makes an intelligence man click, I found the basic plot of the piece rather predictable fare. "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee," about [an] eighteenth-century settler, seems to merit more consideration here, for the reasons that it is directly concerned with African affairs, and, more importantly, it is an extremely well-wrought and fascinating work of fiction. The author may have intended for the two to be more integrally related. They do share the theme of outsiders failing to understand the cultures of the people they wish to dominate, and a character named Coetzee (a descendant of Jacobus? both of them related to the author?)—does turn up in "The Vietnam Project." Nevertheless, I think they can stand as separate novellas, and I certainly cannot detect enough unity to make them parts of a single whole….
Jacobus Coetzee gives his story, sometimes reminiscent of an explorer's log and at other times more like a theological tract, complete with extended observations on race and God. (p. 42)
The writing here never slacks, whether it be at moments of intense action, revealing contemplation, or haunting envisioning, as in a fine dream sequence fueled by [a] fever. The reader is entirely inside Jacobus Coetzee's head, and even the most patently disgusting moments of the story he has to tell are not avoided…. Overall, Jacobus Coetzee emerges in all his contradictory complexity, a complexity that he finally denied by falling back on his set belief in his own superiority. (p. 43)
[Today] the past is what many white South Africans strive to glorify in rationalizing the code of their dominance. But Coetzee in his straightforward portrayal of Jacobus Coetzee (a bull-headed trader out to make some quick money on ivory) shows us that past isn't much to believe in; the sad, brutal story of colonialism never is. (p. 44)
Peter La Salle, "Insight into the South African Psyche in Fiction," in Africa Today (© Africa Today Associates; reprinted by permission of Africa Today, Graduate School of International Studies, University of Denver, Denver, CO 80208), Vol. 27, No. 3, Third Quarter, 1980, pp. 42-4.∗
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[Waiting For the Barbarians is] a grimly thoughtful book, impelled by a coherent saeva indignatio. Set in an imaginary colonial territory …, [it] is actually an allegory of recent events in Southern Africa. The hero is a humane minor official who worries about his relationship with the imperial state of which he is part. When a brutal colonel from the 'Third Bureau' arrives to start torturing native suspects, the sense of involuntary complicity becomes intolerable.
A platonic love affair with a native girl deepens his sympathy for the subject peoples and prompts a reconsideration of the concept of barbarism. Eventually, after a long trip into the desert, he returns to find himself an enemy of the state. Thereafter events can be read either as a retrospective account of the end of empire in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, or as a covert prophecy for the future of South Africa itself. Once the penny's dropped, of course, historical allegory of this kind can seem a little dull—a matter of ticking off fictional events against their literal counterparts. But if you are interested in the region (and who can not be?) Waiting For The Barbarians provides an intriguing sidelight on its continuing agony.
Nicholas Shrimpton, "Cold Feet in Moscow," in New Statesman (© 1980 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 100, No. 2590, November 7, 1980, p. 30.∗
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South Africa may be the world's whipping-boy, but J. M. Coetzee is too intelligent a novelist to cater for moralistic voyeurs. This does not mean that he avoids the social and political crises edging his country towards catastrophe. But he chooses not to handle such themes in the direct, realistic way that writers of older generations, such as Alan Paton, preferred to employ. Instead, Coetzee has developed a symbolic and even allegorical mode of fiction—not to escape the living nightmare of South Africa but to define the psychopathological underlying the sociological, and in doing so to locate the archetypal in the particular. He did this in [In the Heart of the Country] …, which, with its doom-laden action of lust, violence, and revenge, resembles Greek Tragedy seen through a glass darkly. He does it rather differently in his less difficult but also less original new novel, Waiting for the Barbarians.
Whereas In the Heart of the Country had a South African setting, though one so remote that it was as close to Beckett-land, the new novel dispenses completely with a specifically South African setting. Coetzee presents an isolated town on the frontier between a nameless Empire and the wild, inhospitable land of the barbarians beyond. Like the Empire, its distant capital, and even the outpost itself, most of the characters, including the magistrate-narrator, remain unnamed, a couple of exceptions being, ironically, inhuman members of the SS-like Third Bureau of the Civil Guard, whose mission it is to suppress the barbarians.
If the place cannot be located on any map, the time, too, as in In the Heart of the Country, is impossible to pinpoint…. Yet the Third Bureau and its chief representative, Colonel Joll (very far from jolly), belong to twentieth-century totalitarianism…. What Coetzee is interested in is the abuse of power, the state's need for victims and enemies, and the predicament of the liberal conscience, not only in their South African manifestations.
The narrator is a sane liberal suddenly confronted by an authoritarian illiberalism which he cannot contend with and which calls into question the basis of his apparently secure values. His narrative describes the effect of Joll's mission on the quiet town over which he, the ageing magistrate, has presided benevolently and paternalistically for many years…. Far from feeling threatened by the barbarians, the town has achieved a modus vivendi with them, and tends to treat them with contempt, from a position of assumed superiority.
With the arrival of Joll …, all this is changed. It is like Angelo's régime after the Duke's lax rule in Measure for Measure. The magistrate recognizes this anti-barbarian virulence, resulting in Joll's atrocities, to be an outbreak of mass hysteria arising from deep-rooted anxiety about the alien and unknown rather than a response to a genuine threat. But his easy-going common-sense is no match for Joll's icy zeal, and in spite of his repugnance at Joll's methods and his sympathy for the barbarian victims he initially acquiesces by choosing non-interference rather than resistance….
[Finally] the magistrate himself is branded as an enemy and subjected to Joll's characteristic attentions. It is at this time that he finally does protest publicly at the hideous cruelty inflicted on barbarian prisoners, although the response to his appeal to common humanity is inevitably violent.
Eventually, with the town abandoned by the Third Bureau and with Joll's punitive expeditionary force reduced to a fleeing rabble by the barbarians, the magistrate is once more in charge as the remaining inhabitants await the barbarians. The atmosphere of collapse and disintegration, as though a new Dark Age is at hand, resembles that of recent prophetic fiction such as Doris Lessing's Memoirs of a Survivor.
Waiting for the Barbarians belongs to that twentieth-century sub-genre which Rex Warner helped to popularize in England during the 1930s—the political allegory or fable dealing with modern totalitarianism…. Coetzee's new novel covers well-trodden ground in a way that In the Heart of the Country did not; and despite its gripping narrative and moral insight, it does not add substantially to its tradition…. Furthermore, this kind of fiction as a whole, peopled as it is mainly by stereotypes, is often in danger of moving so far away from the familiar in its determination to establish universals that it defeats its own purpose. Graham Greene's political novels, which seize on the particular and the "ephemeral", get much closer to the heart of the matter, the human factor.
Peter Lewis, "Types of Tyranny," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4049, November 7, 1980, p. 1270.
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[As] soon as you start probing [Waiting for the Barbarians] for clues as to a possible historical model the book's meaning sways towards the allegorical. Conversely, if you look for specific allegorical components the vivid, concrete qualities reassert themselves. The frontier town is real and its inhabitants are as plausible and as inconsistent as living people. The barbarians beyond the horizon are real men on horseback, pointing ancient weapons that can kill. And yet this is no conventional adventure story of life in a frontier outpost….
Mr Coetzee has produced a remarkable book which works at varying levels of abstraction. It is, in the first place, a gripping account of frontier strife on the periphery of a great empire, replete with political and military dimensions. At this level, it would communicate to the Russian field commanders in Afghanistan just as it would have carried a message for British proconsuls, Roman provincial governors or American cavalrymen subjugating the Indians. But the Empire … is not just spatial but also temporal. It is a metaphor for the quotidian round, familiar and secure, but menaced always by the hidden perils of an impenetrable future. At this level, the story is a psychologically resonant parable about contemporary Western man, basking in plenty and technological ease in a world that he has himself seeded with doomsday machines. In broader temporal perspective, the Empire is history itself. In perhaps its most pregnant manifestation, the Empire is the human mind, ordered, prosperous and fecund but surrounded permanently by the 'barbarous' forces of madness and hallucination. The Empire finally represents … an ambiguity which governs all relationships and dissolves all clear-cut moral judgments. In the end there is no distinction between the torturer and the good administrator.
The text is haunted by literary echoes….
Mr Coetzee lectures in English … and there is little doubt that the literary references are deliberate. They add a further structural dimension to a work which derives part of its impact from a subtle interweaving of planes of meaning. But the book is also the story of a self-indulgent old administrator who is surprised, and rather dismayed, to discover within himself the incapacity to tolerate outrage even when Government demands it. The barbarians may be at the gate. But with defenders like this novelist at his post their final assault will continue to be postponed.
Paul Ableman, "End of Empire," in The Spectator (© 1980 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 245, No. 7593, December 13, 1980, p. 21.
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[Waiting for the Barbarians shows that J.M. Coetzee] has learned much from the masters of the novel of more or less oblique protest—Vargas Lhosa, Asturias, García Márquez. Above all, he has learned not to let crude polemic or propaganda intrude into his essentially humane message. Humanity, as he demonstrates, is not the property of any democratic organization. This book is brilliant, disturbing, dry, ironic, unsensational, deeply moving and above all it acknowledges the weakness of all men in the face of barbarity. It is free of rhetoric, subtle, and ought to be read by all those interested in decency and its perpetuation amongst men. It has much more significance than a thousand polemical pamphlets.
Martin Seymour-Smith, "English Fiction: 'Waiting for the Barbarians'," in British Book News (© British Book News, 1981; courtesy of British Book News), April, 1981, p. 247.
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[Waiting for the Barbarians] is not about South Africa: It is not about anywhere, and hence it is about everywhere.
The hero-narrator has no name, merely a title. He is a magistrate serving an anonymous empire in one of its frontier settlements—easygoing, with literary inclinations, sensual, due for retirement. He is visited by a certain Colonel Joll…. The nomenclature sounds contemporary, but Coetzee sets up a temporal dubiety…. The illusion of a composite time zone is, throughout, very skillfully maintained.
Colonel Joll is concerned, on behalf of the empire he serves, with holding back the barbarians—meaning comparatively primitive people who fish and hunt on the imperial borders. The maintenance of a Pax on such frontiers has, from the Roman to the British time, always entailed a deliberate misunderstanding of the term "peace," which comes to mean war, and an exaggeration of the danger to the center of an uneasiness on the borders…. The Magistrate, to whom the innocence of these so-called barbarians is self-evident, revolts for the first time in his career against the very system he has been upholding.
[He] becomes an enemy of the state—imprisoned, tortured, but, like Orwell's Winston Smith, eventually allowed to go free, a ragged beggar concerned only with survival…. Coetzee, with laconic brilliance, articulates one of the basic problems of our time—how to understand the mentality behind brutality and injustice.
Winston Smith, feeling the first blows of the Thought Police, understands the importance of avoiding pain, which is something the mere doctrinaire fighters against injustice never have a chance to consider. When, with the Magistrate, the basic human necessity—that of being able to breathe—is intermittently withheld, all ideology becomes dust. Survival is the important thing. The days of martyrdom are over. But a martyr is, etymologically, a witness, and the first condition of witnessing is survival.
Toward the end of the story the imperial forces suffer a setback in their forays against the barbarians. What empires never seem to learn is that primitive peoples who wish only to be left alone turn into genuine enemies of empire when they have to use counter-aggression in order to survive…. Imperial armies chop down forests so that the barbarians may not go into hiding; the earth is eroded; the frontier ceases to be a civilized oasis and becomes a wasteland. But the lesson is never learned. The self-infliction of the wound continues. The wise man tries to survive.
This is a powerful fictional indictment not only of the stupidity of the separatist ideology that sustains Coetzee's own country but of that stupidity in all of us that finds its most typical expression in destruction…. Plato said we must tame the beast in ourselves…. There is no bestial parallel for the brutal inanity of political man. This grave and admirably written story at least shows where the hope lies. Personal survival is all. (pp. 88, 90)
Anthony Burgess, "The Beast Within: 'Waiting for the Barbarians'," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1982 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 15, No. 17, April 26, 1982, pp. 88, 90.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438
In nearly every way J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians is a novel beyond the ordinary, and I cannot imagine anyone reading it and remaining unmoved by its anguish and sense of futility. Memories of Kafka and Faulkner dart through Coetzee's surreal fable of racial brutality and injustice. The mood is that of Albert Camus as he examined the condition of existential man in The Stranger.
The novel takes place at a trading outpost at the farthest reaches of a state called "The Empire."…
For around 30 years the aging magistrate who narrates Coetzee's novel has presided over the affairs of the lazy village…. But news of native raids on pack trains and flocks of sheep in the outlands have reached the capital, and the Third Bureau division of the Civil Guard has dispatched a senior officer [Colonel Joll] to investigate banditry along the frontier. (p. 1)
[Barbarian prisoners] are tortured into confessing the conspiracy against the Empire that Joll has imagined….
Witnessing this barbarism of the civilized and feeling his own humanity altered by the experience in some unutterable way, the magistrate withdraws into a constricted but different version of himself. He seems to invent a new personality without understanding why. This is the most haunting subject that Coetzee's novel lays before us. Violence and animalism are contagious. Everyone is changed by the virus, often in different ways, but always to worse effect.
The novel abounds in possibilities for moral investigation and religious analogy.
The magistrate's years of venality have left him feeble against the assertions of evil power, and Coetzee suggests that ethical weakness saps the flesh as well as the spirit….
In one of several glances towards the Gospels of the New Testament, Coetzee leads the magistrate to enact his own rites of penance and purification while the Imperial Guard conducts its forays into the bush….
Because Coetzee's novel defines behavior in terms of existential reality, it moves tentatively and conditionally, and most often in the direction of irony and ambiguity….
[Morality] is neither formula nor reflex for Coetzee. His magistrate is modern man in search of conscience. (p. 2)
[He] is modern man morally wounded and left helpless by the political society he has created….
The intelligence Coetzee brings us in Waiting for the Barbarians comes straight from Scripture and Dostoevsky: We possess the devil. We are all barbarians.
The terror and emptiness belong to the 20th century. Coetzee, who teaches and writes in South Africa, has found us alive but sick in the soul. (p. 12)
Webster Schott, "At the Farthest Outpost of Civilization," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1982, The Washington Post), May 2, 1982, pp. 1-2, 12.