Four Classic Texts – Part Three.
2022 Reading Challenge. AKA Hank Schwaeble made me do this.
Earlier this year, Hank Schwaeble, author of some of my all-time favourite horror thriller novels and short stories (Damnable, Diabolical, and American Nocturne, and more recently Moonless Nocturne), challenged his friends and colleagues to enrich themselves by reading four classic texts—outside our usual genres—over the next twelve months. I hesitated. Quite apart from the ‘future classics’ I read in order to blurb for author friends (around 30 annually), I’m also a manuscript assessor, literary judge, anthology curator, and guest editor for multiple projects, all of which amounts to a lot of reading. Plus, I like to keep up with my favourite writers (many) and works that appear on award lists as much as I can, as well as staying current in genres that I’m writing in, which, admittedly, is a lot. And there are my favourite classic texts, like Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Hugo's Germinal , books which I try to read regularly and am always surprised when they still resonate, albeit sometimes for different reasons. I imagine that is the very definition of a classic text—that they stand the test of time and speak to universal themes which have meaning for people across cultures and also across generations. But I do have a lot of reading to get through this year. Could I afford to take on four more books? And in genres I’m less excited about? I persuaded myself that there was no harm in checking out the list that Hank provided. After all, I’m as well-read as the next person, so there was a good chance I’d already read most of them...
Whoops. Not so.
Many of the titles were new to me—including some secondary works by authors of acclaim. So, partly because I was bitterly ashamed at having read so few on the list, and partly because I love to read, I selected four:
· Blindness by José Saramago
· The Bostonians by Henry James
· Waiting for Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
· Red Sorghum: A Novel of China by Mo Yan
I began by reading Blindness by José Saramago, and if you missed my review of that title, you can find it HERE. Next up, I selected Red Sorghum: A Novel of China by Mo Yan (translated by Howard Goldblatt), For my review of that text, click HERE. Then I tried reading The Bostonians by Henry James. I tried three times, and still haven't made it past Chapter 2. Maybe it's the timing, or James's infuriatingly cluttered, meandering style. In any case, The Bostonians isn't resonating for me right now (I'll have to go back to the list to select a fourth classic title). Instead, I dived in to J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. Here is the back cover blurb:
"How do you eradicate contempt, especially when that contempt is founded on nothing more substantial than differences in table manners, variations in the structure of the eyelid? Shall I tell you what I sometimes wish? I wish that these barbarians would rise up and teach us a lesson, so that we would learn to respect them."
After twenty years of peacefully running one of the Empire’s settlements, a magistrate takes pity on an enemy barbarian who has been tortured. He enters into an awkward intimate relationship with her, and then is himself imprisoned as an enemy of the state.
Waiting for the Barbarians is a disturbing political fable about oppression, the fraught desire for reparation, and about living with a troubled conscience under an unjust regime. In examining who we think we are, Coetzee probes our dreams, thoughts, shame and desires.
Cover and Synopsis: The cover of the kindle version shows the dark sunglasses of Colonel Joll, the story's 'antagonist' and the magistrate's nemesis, on a stark white background. A brutal torturer of the Third Bureau, Joll has been sent to the South African desert outpost of 'the empire' to replace the magistrate, who has failed in his duty to put down the barbarians and draw a line in the sand (for London). The sunglasses symbolise the unwillingness of Joll, and by extension the empire, to acknowledge the corruption of their regime, and the fact that the barbarians, if left to their lands, pose no threat. The torturer, Joll, deliberately turns a blind eye to his own cruelty, and this metaphor of blindness / masks is carried through the novel in a number of ways. The magistrate, for example, metaphorically blind to his own complicity and exploitation of the barbarian girl -- an innocent prisoner of the regime, whose eyes have been damaged by the torturer -- is later incarcerated and cruelly blinded himself, persecuted by the torturer's underlings. The black and white theme also reflects this notion of willful blindness, since conflict between the colonists and the indigenous peoples is never simply black and white, but nuanced and complex. Overall, the cover is highly effective, but probably only after reading the story.
Style: As in Saramago's Blindness, the main characters in this novel, the aging fat magistrate and the young barbarian girl are not named, an element which turns the story into allegory, with the magistrate characterised as a 'man of conscience' who is at least partially aware of his role as a flawed 'fallen creature', and the barbarian girl (seen only through the magistrate's perspective) as a stolid, disgusting creature, with deformed tortured feet and a blank gaze yet somehow worthy of exploitation. In the key plot event in the story, the old fat magistrate, after turning a blind eye to her torture (and the murder of her father) finds himself infatuated with the girl, despite his efforts to put her from his mind. Out of his own hubris and privilege, he installs her in his house and in his bed, flagellating himself at length for his moral failings. Before Joll returns with reinforcements to make war with the barbarians (who the empire insists are on the brink of uprising) the magistrate travels into the badlands to return the barbarian girl to her kin. This act leads Joll to throw the lawmaker into prison, purportedly to await trial. And it is this incarceration that turns the magistrate into something of a conscientious objector. Although, I believe Coetzee's intent is for the reader to see him as a good (if somewhat flawed) person, by this point, I couldn't really care less for the magistrate's suffering, or even if he died, because he is as cruel and complicit as Joll. Even when the magistrate is punished for rejecting the empire's stance, I never felt he was truly in danger because of the privilege afforded him by his family and his former status as a regime official. It's precisely because of this privilege that he knows where the key is kept. at one point, he simply unlocks the door and lets himself out.
The rape of local women, which parallels the unprovoked political, military, and economic oppression of the barbarians in their own country, affected me more than the scenes of torture in this novel. The rape of the barbarian girl, the innkeeper, and the prostitute (all three are under certain duress by the magistrate), and even a child, are treated as lesser evils in this text, because in patriarchal society, women are always lesser. In this way, Coetzee positions women, and women's bodies as the other, as the first landscape ripe for conquer by the oppressors. In fact, in this novel, not only are women's bodies the first site of the invasion, their oppression continues throughout the novel, even after the garrison departs. The 'good' magistrate, the conscientious objector who knows effectively nothing of the people he has lived among for years, nonetheless continues to exist by sponging off his impoverished hosts, eating their food, and finding release with the pregnant innkeeper, even lying to her that the soldier-father of her baby will surely return. For a novel to succeed, at least in my mind, the protagonist needs to be changed in some way, and while the magistrate begins to see the role the regime has played in persecuting the barbarians, he really hasn't changed his own behaviour. At the end of the novel, he remains an oppressor for the regime, even if the regime has moved on. For this reason, I found the ending unsatisfying.
Is it compelling fiction? Yes. This book is confronting and cruel, written in startlingly beautiful prose, the text raising important issues which still resonate today. If a book's purpose is to provoke, then this book is a success, since I'm still furious about it.
Was it an easy read? No. It is an unsettling read, not the least because, for the most part, I felt little empathy for the protagonist, the aging lawmaker of 'good conscience' from a family of quality, who is entirely complicit in the oppression and exploitation of the indigenous people of the region, despite the fleeting moment of rebellion which leads to his incarceration.
Did it offer thematic insights I hadn’t already gleaned from other texts? No, although I can't recall reading any other texts about colonialism in the South African context, so it was refreshing from that perspective. The idea of women's bodies being the first site of attack by an invading force is up front and center in this text and cleverly achieved by the author. At least, I hope it was intentional because if not the author is as blind as his character. I note other readers of this text barely address society's ongoing blindness to women's suffering and it makes my blood boil.
Would I read it a second time? Possibly not.
Would I read something else by Coetze? Yes, I think so. If only to determine whether his treatment of women in this text was intentional.
Sensitivity. Definitely some triggering elements for certain readers.
Do I feel enriched? Yes. Angry anyway.
For the final classic book on my 2022 Reading Challenge, please check back later in the year.