Saturday, January 18, 2014

Waiting for the Barbarians, by J.M. Coetzee

In Coetzee one discovers that humility—an awareness of one's insignificance—liberates an artist far more than confidence. Coetzee writes as if it doesn't matter what he says: he is not, he seems to think, that important. So he tells the truth.

He also writes as if he doesn't entirely trust the novel as an art form. Which is interesting for someone commonly—and rightly—regarded as the greatest living English-language novelist.

Allegorist. Fablist. Novelist. Whatever. WriterWaiting for the Barbarians is my lifetime's best dystopian novel.

Like Kafka and Beckett, Coetzee produces stories that glow with an aura of myth or scripture. He doesn't have Beckett's lyrical gifts or Kafka's knack for a single, acute metaphor. But he's more formally rigorous—at least as a novelist—than either of them: a bit more the Protestant, perhaps: less mystical, more lawful, neater, a better citizen, a more conscientious craftsman.

Coming myself from similar stock, I mean that as a compliment. I appreciate his attentiveness. There's nothing vainglorious or self-indulgent about his art. Unlike Kafka and Beckett, he chooses communication over innovation; and I find no writer of his generation, with the possible exception of his compatriot Nadine Gordimer, as profoundly ethical, as morally engaged. Like his narrator in Barbarians, J.M. Coetzee is our era's John the Baptist, a voice in the wilderness, describing not just the form but the content of our advancing doom.

As with Kafka, as with Beckett, we ignore him at our peril.

1 comment:

  1. "Foe" is one of my favorite novels. However, I've read some other ones I did not care for that much.