I stumbled on to the fiction of South African-born novelist J.M. Coetzee recently. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003. He has won the Booker Prize, the Jerusalem Prize, and several other high-profile awards for his fiction. Over the last week or so I have purchased several of his pieces and am working my way through reading his body of work. I completed one volume recently entitled Waiting for the Barbarians, a novel he published in 1980 when he was forty years old.
Coetzee is, again, new to me, so what follows may be too elementary for seasoned Coetzee readers. The following reflections I offer in a form I use when reading literary fiction:
- Main Idea(s)
- Questions Raised/Connections
J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, published in 1980, explores the meaning of empire and barbarians, and what that model may suggest about man’s basic nature. I think Coetzee’s presupposition is that the “other” (political adversary, nation, tribe, culture, etc.) is the person, country, group, or demographic we label “barbarian” in our thinking so that we may justify acts of violence, conquest, and power.
The protagonist in this novel is a magistrate, a judge of some ilk. The importance of that, if I am correct, is that the book explores ideas of justice. What is justice? How do we define it? Where does the concept come from? How does one anchor the concept of justice? Is justice universal? All of these questions, of course, assume a worldview. What worldview offers coherent definitions with regard to justice? Does atheism? Does Christianity? What worldview has allowed for justice to blossom? Has it been atheistic regimes or has it been the Christian worldview?
One of the acts we see the magistrate engage in is washing the feet of a “barbarian” girl. He uses oil. He massages her feet and calves and legs. The biblical allusions to oil and of washing the dirty feet of sinners by the Teacher are overt. But Coetzee may be upending the meaning by asking us readers, “Who is the good one here? Is it the one washing the feet (the magistrate) or the one being washed (the barbarian girl)?” In other words, who is barbaric? Preliminary kindnesses may be mere camouflaged avenues towards conquest.
Because it is not long before the washer of feet in the novel alters his cares. Soon he patronizes women for his own sexual gratification. In sum, the caretaker becomes the predator. Ostensibly civilized and belonging to the cultured empire (he’s a magistrate, after all), he is shown also to be a fallen man with basic desires. The girl, then, becomes seen somewhat like a “noble savage” trope common in some schools of literary fiction.
Man’s natural state, in this novel at least, is bellicose. It’s Hobbesian. Scene after scene is nasty, mean, brutish, but not necessarily short. We witness rape and torture several times throughout the narrative. Cruelty pervades the story. Scores of novels explore man’s fallen nature so thoroughly that it comes across as a truism: A Clockwork Orange, Lord of the Flies, Heart of Darkness, etc.
This novel was different from hundreds of others I’ve read in this sense: it is unclear where or when it is set. If clarity of setting is a fundamental element of narrative, this book ignores that tradition. We readers don’t know where it is set–not the country, not the era, not even the hemisphere. The boundaries simply seem to be only set by an Us vs. Them paradigm. Because I could not locate when and where the story is set, it read to me like allegory.
The children never doubt that the great old trees in whose shade they play will stand forever, that one day they will grow to be strong like their fathers, fertile like their mothers, that they will live and prosper and raise their own children and grow old in the place where they were born. What has made it impossible for us to live in time like fish in water, like birds in air, like children? It is the fault of Empire! Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation. (133)
Who defines the terms of what is “barbaric”? Whose empires will last? What is “cultured”? And how do people define justice? Is it simply the prerogative of the victor, the last man standing? These are serious questions Coetzee explores.
He did not leave this reader with optimism if his worldview is the true one. (Coetzee is an atheist, if what he has said in his many interviews is true.) But I do not ascribe to his worldview in this novel. Yes, empires rise and fall. Rapes occur—of land, of people, of dignity, etc. Countries rise and fall; leaders come and go. Nebuchadnezzar and Herod the Great, just two examples, thought themselves omnipotent. They weren’t.
As I read through the book, and as I hiked several miles recently and tried to think through issues Coetzee raised in the novel, I came up with several questions I hope he addresses in his other books:
- On what basis is anything good or bad in an atheistic worldview? Seems to me things would only be preferences if the objective standard (God) is removed.
- Define justice in an atheistic worldview.
- How do ideas of justice, of barbarianism, of empire, of conquest, and of dignity objectively exist in a materialistic universe?
- If Thomas Hobbes was right, why write novels?
I hiked miles upon miles of hills this week, my hiking stick in my right hand, carved and given to me by a friend from south Georgia, my German shepherd, Brewster, by my side every step—through the woods, in the creeks, over the rocks, and finally back home. I thought much about the novel over the several hours we walked, of what it means to walk upon this earth, of how empires come and empires go, of how leaders are propped up for a bit and then fade, of how fickle we people are, of what worldview really does explain deep questions of justice, of why one would wash another’s feet, and I kept coming back to the One who said: “He has told you, O man what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, ESV).