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Sunday, January 08, 2017

Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) by J.M. Coeteze

Phillip Glass composed an opera based on Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coeteze.
Book Review
Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
 by J.M. Coeteze

  Waiting for the Barbarians didn't win the Booker Prize, but it was singled out in the Nobel Prize for Literature statement, calling it a worthy heir to Joseph Conrad.   Coeteze's colonial administrator is working towards a quiet retirement in a fictional location- it could be Africa, it could be Asia.  His placid existence is disturbed by the arrival of a representative from the central government (a colonial empire) amid rumors of increased activity of "Barbarians" beyond the frontiers./

  The plight of the good-natured colonial official in the face of undescriable horror stretches back to Conrad, other examples of similar books are The Opposing Shore by French author Julien Gracq, published in 1951,  There is also the Italian language novel, The Tartar Steppe, published in 1940 and written by Dino Buzzati.   Waiting for the Barbarians represents an advance in thematic complexity, in that the administrator/narrator lives among the colonial subject.  His relationship with a captive from the Barbarians, left behind by her people after suffering grevious abuse at the hands of the local soldiers, consitutes the major action of Waiting for the Barbarians.  In other similar books, including those by Conrad, the natives are always held at a remove, never fully described, a consciously dictated "other" for the purpose of the authors.

   For my money, the lineage of novels that starts with Conrad is THE best strand of 20th century literature.  The progression from the narrators of Conrad to the literature of Africa and Latin America is direct and unmistakable, even if Conrad himself functioned as an apologist for the colonial regimes.   Coeteze represents a direct African response to this literary heritage, and Waiting for the Barbarians is a powerful and succinct contribution to world literature.

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