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WFTB - First Person Present Tense narration in Coetzee

Escaping the "Time of History"? Present Tense and the Occasion of Narration in J. M.
Coetzee's "Waiting for the Barbarians"
Author(s): Anne Waldron Neumann
Source: The Journal of Narrative Technique , Winter, 1990, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Winter,
1990), pp. 65-86
Published by: Journal of Narrative Theory
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.com/stable/30225296
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Escaping the "Time of History"?
Present Tense and the Occasion of Narration
in J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians
Anne Waldron Neumann
Present-tense narration has recently become common in American neo-realist
fiction (for examples, see Yagoda and Gass; see Note 8 for discussion of a North
American example closer to Coetzee). In American neo-realist fiction, the pres-
ent tense contributes to a terse, colloquial, anecdotal style that increases
verisimilitude. But J. M. Coetzee's South African allegory, Waiting for the
Barbarians-with its other-world setting and its loquacious, elderly protagonistnarrator, who prefers "fancy, questions, speculations" to "facts" and "pragmatic
dicta" (40)-is not American and far from neo-realist. What then might account
for Coetzee's choice of present-tense as well as first-person narration? How does
present-tense narration complicate our task of imagining a fictional occasion of
the story's narrating? And what does this complication imply about Coetzee's view
of the role of literary art in the face of the most extreme political and economic
Dorrit Cohn has recently noted the anti-mimetic nature of the now fully-accepted
convention of third-person omniscient narration and has suggested that first-person
present-tense narration is in the process of winning similar acceptance as conventional despite its equally anti-mimetic nature. Of a passage in the first-person pres-
ent tense from a recent Israeli novel, Cohn writes:
We are clearly in the code of narration here, not in the code of interior
monologue. But this narration goes on simultaneously with the events narrated, and therefore can have no conceivable analogue in the real world-a
world known to be ruled by a law that says: live first, tell later. In recent years
several first-person novels-not to mention countless short stories-have
adhered to this unreal present-tense mode from beginning to end. Robert Pir-
sig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1975) is a particularly
noteworthy example, as is a work by the South African writer J. M. Coetzee
entitled Waiting for the Barbarians (1982). It almost seems as though stories
narrated in this synchronic manner are on the way to establishing a new literary
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66 The Journal of Narrative Technique
convention, standardizing for first-person fiction a discourse situation qui
as unnatural as the [omniscient] one that traditionally rules third-pers
fiction. (19)
Although we can all think of real-world instances of "live now, tell now"-or "live
now, tell later in the present tense"-Cohn's claim seems justified that the sustained instances of living now and telling now in these new, first-person, presenttense fictional narratives do indeed have no analogue in the real world. That is,
as Cohn suggests, these narratives have no "natural" "discourse situation," no
conceivable occasion of narration. Other recent experiments with voice in fiction
come to mind (several of the interpolated "novels" in Italo Calvino's If On a
Winter's Night a Traveler are in first-person present tense, for example, but the
narrative that connects them is second-person present-tense omniscient).'
However, the experiment Cohn identifies is, she claims, in the process of
"establishing a new literary convention," that is, of losing defamiliarity. Coetzee's
novel is especially interesting as a way-station in this process because, I shall suggest, Coetzee actually uses the fact that first-person present-tense narration is not
yet conventional, that its discourse situation is not yet naturalized.2 That is,
Coetzee uses our puzzlement about an occasion for his protagonist's narration
to rouse further puzzlement about how, in situations of economic and political
oppression, to narrate a history without imposing it.
If Cohn is right that first-person fiction has increasingly adhered to this presenttense mode in recent years, we might, using Waiting for the Barbarians as our
example, explore one possible set of reasons for this trend. Of course the same
device may well accord with different meanings in the novels of other authors
than Coetzee (as it surely does in American neo-realist fiction), or even with different meanings in Coetzee's other novels. And the same meanings may be conveyed by other devices. (Nessa Wolfson argues that the function of the historical
present tense depends on the genre in which it is used [226-27]. And Meir Sternberg's "Proteus Principle" posits analogously, for forms of reported discourse,
that "in different contexts . . . the same form may fulfill different functions and
different forms the same function" [148].) Studies of the use of the present tense
in narrative (these studies have tended to examine tense-switching) have emphasized
the immediacy and urgency the present tense conveys: Wolfson summarizes some
earlier research and attacks this traditional "vividness interpretation (227). Immediacy is a "meaning" many devices might convey: attempts to capture in prose fiction the feeling of experience as it unfolds date at least to Samuel Richardson, whose
characters write in the first person and "to the Moment, while the Heart is agitated
by Hopes and Fears, on Events undecided" (4). The hero of George Meredith's
first-person The Adventures of Harry Richmond, for another example, promises
to "shape his style to harmonize with every development of his nature" (275),
that is, to write his life "in the style consonant to [his] ideas . . . at the time"
(207). And A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which Joyce envisioned as
"a fluid succession of presents" (257), is written literally in the style appropriate to
Stephen Dedalus's experience at the time. Indeed Kate Hamburger has claimed,
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Escaping the "Time of History" 67
in The Logic ofLiterature, that the fictional past is uniquely charac
kind of present-ness, that a combination of preterite verb forms a
"present-tense" deictic indicators always distinguishes fiction from non
rative (92 and passim).
But the substitution of the present for the past as a narrative tense g
than these earlier attempts to convey immediacy and urgency. In Wai
Barbarians, every moment is present; past fades; future is hidden; ca
fect remain to be unraveled and pondered. "I have never seen an
it. . . . Is he blind?" asks the provincial magistrate, in the novel's firs
of the interrogator in dark glasses sent from the imperial capital to lear
about rumors of barbarian unrest on the frontier. The narrator's qu
fire for the reader too, until the magistrate solves the puzzle of Colonel
invented glasses. And the novel's many other instances of blindness
is "never seen"3 reverberate similarly in the reader's mind be
magistrate's present-tense narration records present uncertainty wit
drawing retrospective connections, certainly without drawing them sim
with the event. "Why me?" groans the magistrate, oppressed, after C
arrival, by the Empire whose servant he too has been: "Never has there
so confused and innocent of the world as I. A veritable baby!" (94). P
narration is well suited to narrate the magistrate's childlike confusio
Present-tense narration is also well suited to Coetzee's time-less alleg
pression, complicity, and rebellion. After Colonel Joll describes a hu
so much game was killed "that a mountain of carcasses had to be le
"Which was a pity" (1)-the magistrate, hunting alone, finds sightin
longer quickens his pulse:
With the buck before me suspended in immobility, there seems to be t
for all things, time even to turn my gaze inward and see what it is that
robbed the hunt of its savour: the sense that this has become no longer a m
ning's hunting but an occasion on which either the proud ram bleeds to
on the ice or the old hunter misses his aim; that for the duration of this f
moment the stars are locked in a configuration in which events are
themselves but stand for other things. Behind my paltry cover I stand t
to shrug off this irritating and uncanny feeling, till the buck w
and . . . disappears. (39-40)
Coetzee's novel too is an allegory whose "events are not themselves b
other things," whose implied author perhaps hides behind the "paltr
an adopted persona in a narrative whose "I" is not I. Moreover, the
sense of participating, within Coetzee's allegory, in another timeless
death and defeat foreshadows his refusal to join Colonel Joll's hunt f
barians. Hence, like the novel's many other instances of foreshadow
tributes to a narrative alinearity concordant with present-tense narr
Thus there are more reasons for present-tense narration in Waiting fo
barians than immediacy and urgency. Indeed, Coetzee has written othe
novels in or partly in the present tense. And in all of them question
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68 The Journal of Narrative Technique
make narratives out of lives (especially of lives touched by oppression) are c
tral, and therefore possible fictional occasions of narration, whether specifie
unspecified, are also central. Foe, for example, Coetzee's most recent work
an epistolary novel, therefore often in the first-person present tense, consi
of letters from Susan Barton, castaway, to Daniel Foe, or Defoe, well-known aut
describing her experiences with Cruso [sic] and Friday on Cruso's island and hop
the renowned Mr. Foe might make her reminiscences into a book. Clearly it
mained for a later author-Coetzee himself, who "appears" as the narrator
a first-person present-tense epilogue-to publish Crusoe's oppression of the ra
other Friday from the viewpoint of a member of a minority oppressed on the
of gender, a choice Coetzee's own gender of course problematizes. (Coetzee's F
is tongue-less, so no one, not even Friday himself, can express his viewpo
Coetzee's earlier In the Heart of the Country, for another example, is also
narrative of a "castaway" (131, 132), "a spinster with a locked diary" (3) w
lives with her domineering father and two black servants on an isolated S
African farmstead. The novel consists of numbered first-person present-tens
tries, which-because, for example, the events they describe are inconsiste
cannot be an actual "locked diary." "My story is my story," Magda asserts,
if it is a dull black blind stupid miserable story, ignorant of its meaning an
all its many possible untapped happy variants" (5); the novel's numbered ent
have the effect of exploring possible untapped variants-albeit mostly unh
variants on oppression.4
We shall see how Waiting for the Barbarians too addresses the question of
to make narratives out of lives touched by oppression-especially when the
rator is complicitous in that oppression. But first let us consider what I a
is a related question: whether, in the case of Waiting for the Barbarians,
can be any conceivable fictional occasion of the story's narrating or any nar
convention that might familiarize it. Could we read Coetzee's novel as an in
ble narrator's report of the magistrate's stream-of-consciousness or as int
monologue, for example? No: the words of the novel are more coherent than str
of-consciousness and more deliberate than interior monologue. (Moreover,
more organized and therefore apparently more mediated interior monologue
ably seems conventional only as the report of a character's thought within a fr
of the third-person narration that Coetzee's novel lacks any sign of.) These w
do not merely articulate the thoughts and perceptions that pass through
magistrate's mind as events impinge on him: they are narration.
Specific evidence that the words of the novel are not only narration but
not simultaneous with the events they describe (other than the impossibility
the magistrate lives with writing materials always at hand)-that is, that they
not be stream-of-consciousness or interior monologue-is that many event
omitted or summarized. And, if summary indicates we are in the code of n
tion, so does the novel's handling of scene: for example, the inquits or attrib
tags and the conventional punctuation usually omitted as unnecessary and a
mimetic in reporting direct speech within stream-of-consciousness or int
monologue are retained in the magistrate's narrative (incidentally, I write
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Escaping the "Time of History" 69
magistrate's narrative" intending the ambiguity: by him, or about him?
scene with his torturer:
"No, listen!" I say. " . . . I am not blaming you or accusing you,
long past that. . . . I know that the workings of justice are often obscu
am only trying to understand . . . how you breathe and eat and live from
to day. But I cannot! That is what troubles me! If I were he, I say to my
my hands would feel so dirty that it would choke me-"
He . . . hits me so hard in the chest that I gasp and stumble backw
"You bastard!" he shouts. " . . . Get out! Go and die somewhere!"
"When are you going to put me on trial?" I shout at his retreating back.
He pays no heed. (126)
Much of the magistrate's narrative, however, is neither summary nor dramatic scene
but the first-person report of the magistrate's apparently unspoken meditations.
(Note that dramatic monologues like Browning's or Tennyson's are typically speech
rather than thought and specify or imply an interlocutor. Thus Waiting for the
Barbarians is not dramatic monologue either.) But even the meditative sections
of the magistrate's narrative often seem not to be stream-of-consciousness or interior monologue. Stream-of-consciousness and interior monologue would typically
report a single moment of thought in a single moment of narrative. For example,
the magistrate admits that he would "prefer not to dwell on the possibility" that
the captured barbarian girl he has taken into his bed but not sexually penetrated
may see in him "evidences of impotence, indecisiveness, [and] alienation from
his own desires" rather than "a man in the grip of a passion, however obscure
and perverted (56). But the long paragraph of meditation that follows and dwells
on precisely this possibility suggests that we are not reading the account of a single
moment of thought in which a possibility was indeed not dwelt on, but rather
the conflated account of repeated attempts to grapple with a contradiction: "I would
do well to take these thoughts seriously," the magistrate warns himself (56).
Such reasoning implies that the magistrate's narrative, contrary to the evidence
of its present tense, cannot be simultaneous with the events it recounts. On the
other hand, consistent with the evidence of its tense, the magistrate's narrative
cannot with perfect logic be interpreted as subsequent to the events it relates either.
In particular, this first-person present-tense narrative cannot logically be the
magistrate's own subsequent written account of a year in his life, which he-like
Coetzee-has for some reason decided to frame in the present tense. Important
pieces of evidence against this otherwise appropriate presumption are the
magistrate's admissions throughout that he is forgetting the past he just narrated
in such detail-especially, after returning her to her people, his relationship with
the barbarian girl:
She is going, she is almost gone. This is the last time to look on her clearly
face to face, to scrutinize the motions of my heart, to try to understand who
she really is: hereafter, I know, I will begin to re-form her out of my reper-
toire of memories according to my questionable desires. (73, cf. 75)
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70 The Journal of Narrative Technique
I am forgetting the girl. . . . I cannot remember certainly what she looks
like. . . . I am forgetting her, and forgetting her, I know, deliberately. . . . I
am steadily engaged in burying her in oblivion. (86)
Other internal evidence (besides the tense) that the narration cannot be after-th
fact are injunctions by the magistrate to himself far more consistent with narration
at-the-moment than with a retrospective account by the magistrate that just ha
pens to be in the present tense. One such example might be the magistrate's
would do well to take these thoughts seriously" (56, quoted above) that succeeds
and contradicts his "I prefer not to dwell on the possibility" (also 56). Or "I mu
assert my distance from Colonel Joll!" (44; the magistrate will later admit hi
fraternity with Colonel Joll). Or the magistrate's plaintive articulation of the libera
dilemma: "is there any principle behind my opposition? . . . In my opposition
there is nothing heroic-let me not for an instant forget that" (78). Or, more
pragmatically, confronting Joll's arrogant assistant, "I must be careful not to smil
(82). Or, finally,
Whom will that . . . girl with the blind face remember: me with my silk robe
and my dim lights and my perfumes and oils and my unhappy pleasures, or
that other cold man with the mask over his eyes who gave the orders and
pondered the sounds of her intimate pain? . . . Though I cringe with shame,
even here and now, I must ask myself whether . . . I was not in my heart
of hearts regretting that I could not engrave myself on her as deeply. (134-5)
In short, Coetzee rules out any possible occasion of narration. On the other
hand, he raises the question of a possible occasion of narration because his nove
describes many other acts of narrating by the magistrate. These other acts of narrating (I will discuss some of them later) establish the magistrate as a potential
historian, but all the acts of narrating that might lead to the narrative we are readin
are abortive: this narrative cannot be any of those described. Other kinds of na
rative referred to within the magistrate's main narrative do hint at possible im
aginative models for the main narrative, however: "the air is full of sighs an
cries," the magistrate believes; "They are never lost; if you listen carefully, . . . yo
can hear them echoing forever" (112, cf. 80). Is the magistrate's narrative tha
echo? Or is it "the words I hear in my head in the subterranean murmur that ha
begun to take the place of conversation" (44)? The magistrate's (purported) narrative is perhaps only finally explicable in the reader's imagination as an act
the magistrate's imagination, perhaps the narrative he may wish now that he ha
made of his life had he been able to frame it then.
Clearly, Coetzee's magistrate is a producer of narratives. But, the novel emphasizes, he is dissatisfied with those he has hitherto produced. Indeed, what can
be the efficacy of narrative, even the efficacy of language, in the magistrate's world?
We need to understand what happens to language in that world before we can
understand how the magistrate might wish to use language in "his" purported nar-
rative. Under Empire, language is itself debased because it has become a means
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Escaping the "Time of History" 71
for debasing (hegemony's power thus to debase language is a fr
recent South African literature).5 Joll's barbarian prisoners, fo
defined as "ENEMY" by the word Joll writes in dust and charcoa
backs. The public beating that follows is real enough, however: "
coal and ochre dust begin to run with sweat and blood. The gam
beat them till their backs are washed clean" (105). In this "game
is imputed by language but expiated in the flesh. In such "exemp
(104), Empire "deprav[es its] people" (106) by its power to perfor
speech acts: "A scapegoat is named, a festival is declared, the law
who would not flock to see the entertainment?" (120, emphasis
Arrested by Colonel Joll and himself become a scapegoat, the m
ningly invokes this power of language to construct reality in the al
to "translate" for Joll from the hieroglyphs on poplar slips he ha
the ancient ruined fort outside the town walls:
"[This] is the barbarian character war, but it has other senses too. It can stand
for vengeance, and, if you turn it upside down like this, it can be made to
read justice. There is no knowing which sense is intended. That is part of
barbarian cunning.
"It is the same with the rest of these slips. . . . They form an allegory. They
can be read in many orders. Further, each single slip can be read in many
ways. Together they can be read as a domestic journal, or they can be read
as a plan of war, or they can be turned on their sides and read as a history
of the last years of the Empire-the old Empire, I mean." (112)
Although the magistrate now recognizes and condemns the debasement of, and
debasement by means of, language-and indeed subverts it by an allegory that
(like Coetzee's own South African allegory) claims not to be about the fall of this
Empire-nevertheless, in his official capacity, the magistrate participated in oppressing by means of language:
I had no doubt, myself, then, that at each moment each one of us, man, woman,
child, perhaps even the poor old horse turning the mill-wheel, knew what
was just: all creatures come into the world bringing with them the memory
of justice. "But we live in a world of laws," I said to my poor prisoner, "a
world of the second-best. . . . All we can do is uphold the laws, all of us,
without allowing the memory of justice to fade," After lecturing him I sentenced
him. . . . I remember the uneasy shame I felt on days like that. (139, emphasis added)
What can become of the magistrate's liberal faith-that all creatures are born with
a knowledge of justice, that justice is independent of language-in a world where
justice may be merely war or vengeance redefined and where poor old horses,
if not men, are treated unjustly? In administering justice, the magistrate realizes-in
"lecturing" and sentenc[ing]"-"I was not, as I liked to think, the indulgent
pleasure-loving opposite of the cold rigid Colonel. I was the lie that Empire tells
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72 The Journal of Narrative Technique
itself when times are easy, he the truth that Empire tells when harsh winds b
Two sides of imperial rule, no more, no less" (135).
Indeed, the magistrate is himself subjected to the harsh winds of imperia
and its power over language. At first exhilarated by his ability to turn the
slips into subversive allegory, the magistrate believes that
If I were to confront these men now, in public, in a fair trial, I would find
the words to shame them. It is a matter of health and strength: I feel my hot
words swell in my breast. But they will never bring a man to trial while he
is healthy and strong enough to confound them. They will shut me away in
the dark till I am a muttering idiot, a ghost of myself; then they will haul
me before a closed court and in five minutes dispose of the legalities they
find so tiresome. (113)
Imprisoned in the very room where last year Joll interrogated his barbaria
tives, while the magistrate "occupied [himself] with the ledgers in [his] of
(81), it seems to the magistrate "no great infliction to move from the solit
of everyday existence to the solitude of a cell when I could bring with me a
of thoughts and memories" (85). But solitary confinement robs him of that
nal world and even robs the language on which it depends of its significan
turning random marks into a possible "language";6 "Sometimes, sitting o
mat staring at three specks on the wall and feeling myself drift for the thou
time towards the questions, Why are they in a row? Who put them there? Do
stand for anything?, ... I realize how tiny I have allowed them to make my
When the magistrate next confronts the servants of Empire, it is neither in public
nor at a trial:
my torturers . . . were interested only in demonstrating to me what it meant
to live in . . . a body which can entertain notions of justice only as long as
it is whole and well. . . . They did not come to force the story out of me
of what I said to the barbarians and what the barbarians had said to me. So
I had no chance to throw the high-sounding words I had ready in their faces.
Is justice merely a high-sounding word then, a "notion" we "entertain" when times
are easy? To endure the pain of his injuries, the magistrate clings to "remembered
words even after they have ceased to make sense" (109). But can the magistrate
himself produce words that will "make sense"? Can he-to return to the fictional
occasion of the narrative we are reading-produce words that will confound Empire? Protesting the public beating of the barbarian prisoners:
"Look!" I shout. I point to the four prisoners. . . . I raise my broken hand
to the sky. "Look! . . . We are the great miracle of creation! But from some
blows this miraculous body cannot repair itself! How-!" Words fail me. "Look
at these men!" I recommence. "Men!"...
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Escaping the "Time of History" 73
I hear the blow coming and turn to meet it. It catches me full across th
face. "I am blind!" I think
What I wanted to say next I cannot remember. A miracle of creation-I
pursue the thought but it eludes me like a wisp of smoke. It occurs to me
that we crush insects beneath our feet, miracles of creation too, beetles, worms,
cockroaches, ants, in their various ways. (106-7)
Hustled back to his cell, the magistrate knows his jailers
commit an error in treating me so summarily. For I am no orator. . . . Would
I have dared to face the crowd to demand justice for these ridiculous barbarian
prisoners with their backsides in the air? Justice: once that word is uttered,
where will it . . . lead but to laying down our arms and opening the gates
of the town to the people whose land we have raped? The old magistrate,
defender of the rule of law, enemy in his own way of the State, assaulted and
imprisoned, impregnably virtuous, is not without his own twinges of doubt.
Torn by the conflicting claims of cockroaches, poor old horses, and "Men," and
with the poplar slips before him as an example of indecipherable hieroglyphs "written by a stranger long since dead" (110), the magistrate not only doubts the rightness
of his cause and whether his words will persuade now but also whether his words
will ever be heard and understood. Escaped from his prison cell in time to witness
the public beating, the magistrate had at first hesitated:
I ought to go back to my cell. As a gesture it will have no effect, it will
not even be noticed. Nevertheless, for my own sake, as a gesture to myself
alone, I ought to return to the cool dark and . . . stop my ears to the noise
of patriotic bloodlust and close my lips and never speak again. . . . For me,
at this moment, . . . what has become important above all is that I should
neither be contaminated by the atrocity that is about to be committed nor poison
myself with impotent hatred of its perpetrators. I cannot save the prisoners,
therefore let me save myself. Let it at the very least be said, if it ever comes
to be said, if there is ever anyone in some remote future interested to know
the way we lived, that in this farthest outpost of the Empire of the light there
existed one man who in his heart was not a barbarian. (104, emphasis added)
Despite his conviction that any gesture, both now and in some "remote future,"
will be as ineffective and unnoticed as the ancient hieroglyphs are indecipherable,
the magistrate does bring water for the prisoners-symbolically countering Joll's
barbaric game of "washing" off the word "ENEMY"-and does make the speech
that instead labels the barbarians "Men." He thus resists the temptation to remain
"[un]contaminated" by turning his back on victims whose degradation shames
him-a temptation he also felt after Joll's first round of interrogations:
It would be best if this obscure chapter in the history of the world were terminated at once, if these ugly people [the "sick, famished, damaged, terrified"
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74 The Journal of Narrative Technique
barbarian prisoners (24) were obliterated from the face of the earth and
swore to make a new start, to run an empire in which there would be no mor
injustice, no more pain. . . . But that will not be my way. The new men o
Empire are the ones who believe in fresh starts, new chapters, clean page
I struggle on with the old story, hoping that before it is finished it will reve
to me why it was that I thought it worth the trouble. (24)
Coetzee perhaps intends the "new men of Empire" to suggest, in his Sout
allegory, South Africa's Afrikaner nationalists, politically empowered s
to implement apartheid, as opposed to those, like Coetzee himself perh
identified more closely with the older British liberal tradition. The "ne
might also represent, however, in an allegory of authorship, any
totalitarianism (Marxism as well as fascism, for example) with its politicall
ing views of literary and humanist values.7 Coetzee's "new men" belie
"new chapters" and "clean pages" that can redefine war or vengeance
The magistrate, on the other hand-again perhaps like Coetzee himself
allegory of his own authorship-struggles on with the "archaic code" (
"decency" (81), with "the old story" and the old values, hoping these old
ings will finally reveal their worth. (Surely, "the old story" is in the prese
because it is this "struggle" Coetzee wishes to record.)
In this struggle with the old story, the magistrate envisions not only a
story but a different kind of story from the "fresh starts, new chapters, clea
of the "new men of Empire." But
What the . . . document is to be I do not yet know. A testament? A memoi
A confession? A history of thirty years on the frontier? All . . . day I sit
a trance at my desk staring at the empty white paper, waiting for words
come. . . . It seems appropriate that a man who does not know what to
with the woman in his bed should not know what to write. (57-8)
Whether the magistrate's narrative is testament, memoir, or confessio
eschew finally the temporality and linearity of a "history of thirty ye
frontier." In This Sex Which Is Not One, Luce Irigaray argues throug
phallogocentric language, like male sexuality, is univocal and linear as
dominant and oppressive (30, 209, for example). The magistrate, who
penetrate the barbarian girl sexually until she invites intercourse during t
to her people, slowly learns to value a non-linear, non-oppressive langua
Colonel Joll who believes that you must "prob[e]" and "exert pressure
the truth" (5), that bodies can be penetrated and made to reveal their se
instruments of torture that pierce and turn "like a key" (10). The mag
contrast, is more tentative. He confuses the barbarian girl by trying t
his hesitation in shooting the water buck: " 'I do not see,' she says. . .
you want to shoot this buck?' " "I shake my head. That is not the me
the story, but what is the use of arguing? I am like an incompetent sch
fishing about with my maieutic forceps when I ought to be filling her
truth" (41). The magistrate's image of fishing about to hasten a birth with
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Escaping the "Time of History" 75
or Socratic, forceps ("maieutic" from the Greek for "acting as a m
instead of "filling" or impregnating with "the truth"-associates "incom
with the woman's work of midwifery-and thus competence with male
tion. This image is followed in the next paragraph by the barbarian gi
description of the red-hot fork that all but blinded her during Colonel J
rogations, the novel's most bitterly ironic association of penetration wi
Juxtapositions like these, which the magistrate's narrative makes, dem
the magistrate that penetration and "truth" are unconnected.
The novel also disconnects sexual penetration and truth in the "flutte
cries" (42)-"all playacting of course" (46)-of the prostitute to w
magistrate escapes from the "opaque, impermeable" barbarian girl (7
finally, can no more be found by phallus or fork than by forceps: Co
authoritarian penetrating and the magistrate's Socratic extracting beco
the magistrate's view-both seem equally oppressive; both produce equ
biguous "truths." Whatever the magistrate's narrative will turn out to
no more penetrate and "fill" its readers with the truth (41) than Colon
penetrate his victims to "get" truth (5, suggesting a pun on "beget")
More specifically, because the magistrate's narrative cannot extract a
linear truth from events, it cannot impose such a "truth" on its reader
impose truth on them as Empire imposes "history" on its subjects. "
to live outside history," the magistrate insists: "I wanted to live outside t
that Empire imposes on its subjects, even its lost subjects. I never wish
the barbarians that they should have the history of Empire laid upon t
can I believe that that is cause for shame?" (154). As part of his endeav
imposing a view of history on others, the magistrate's narrative seeks
in particular "the time of history," "the jagged time of rise and fall
Empire exists:
What has made it impossible for us to live in time like fish in water, like bi
in air, like children? It is the fault of Empire! Empire has created the ti
of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent s
ning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and f
of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in hist
and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged m
of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By d
it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhou
everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, t
rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation. A mad vis
yet a virulent one: I, wading in the ooze, am no less infected with it t
the faithful Colonel Joll as he tracks the enemies of Empire through
boundless desert, sword unsheathed to cut down barbarian after barba
until at last he finds and slays the one whose destiny it should be (or if
he then his son's or unborn grandson's) to climb the bronze gateway to t
Summer Palace and topple the globe surmounted by the tiger rampant th
symbolizes eternal dominion. (133-4)
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76 The Journal of Narrative Technique
Consistent with the magistrate's desire to avoid "the time of history," his
is couched in the present tense rather than the historic past (the histori
figuratively washes its hands of events because they are over and done wit
they are history). Moreover, many of the novel's interpolated narratives d
porality and linearity in form or content and thus equally subvert "his
example, the allegory the magistrate claims to "translate" for Colonel J
the wooden hieroglyphs can "be read in many orders" (112), making thi
non-linear in form. The "half-truths" he tells to cadge food after his re
prison-"So I sing for my keep" (127), suggesting a shame Coetzee may f
partly earning his keep from allegories of South Africa's political agony
linear in their self-conscious falsification of cause and effect. And the m
final abortive attempt at a "record of settlement to be left for posterity
not "the annals of an imperial outpost" but a claim that "We lived in
of the seasons" (154) and is thus also non-linear or ahistorical in cont
The barbarian prisoners' confessions under torture are, similarly, atem
ratives: they become "evidence" of the insurrections the interrogator
assume occurred.8 Such "events" are, of course, inevitable for Empire
"locate[s] its existence . . . in the jagged time of rise and fall." As the m
atemporal narration and Coetzee's timeless allegory both remind us, Em
poses temporal as well as geopolitical boundaries: if we, here and now, a
of Empire, then those, there, are outside Empire and consequently ba
Moreover, a time will come when Empire must fall, as the increasing br
of the lakewater on which the outpost depends symbolizes to the ma
And, as the degraded aboriginal river people and the ruined fort outsid
post's walls remind the magistrate, there was also a time before Emp
As repression creates (even in the magistrate) the rebellion it aims to
an inevitability Coetzee's novel brilliantly explores, just so, Empire m
citizens are always "waiting for the barbarians." Indeed, in their violen
to hold back the barbarian tide, the soldiers of Empire inevitably bec
barians, as Coetzee's novel also demonstrates. The magistrate's present-t
ration both reflects this endless, inevitable waiting and partly constitu
tempt "to live outside history" (154), a final refusal to participate in
vision" of Empire's "eternal dominion" (134).
But, though the magistrate has "wanted to live outside history" (154)
not: "I am the same man I always was; but time has broken, something
in upon me from the sky" (43); the magistrate knows there has been "
tion of history into the static time of the oasis" (143). A man who on
to be memorialized by "three lines of small print in the Imperial gazet
learned not to be entirely satisfied either with imposing "history" or w
rative that merely ignores history. If history is not truth, neither is
of history:'"0
It seems right that, as a gesture to the people who inhabited the ruins i
the desert, we too ought to set down a record of settlement to be left for posteri
buried under the walls of our town; and to write such a history no one wo
seem to be better fitted than our last magistrate. But . . . what I find my
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Escaping the "Time of History" 77
beginning to write is not the annals of an imperial outpost or an accou
how the people of that outpost spent their last year composing their so
they waited for the barbarians.
"No one who paid a visit to this oasis," I write, "failed to be struc
the charm of life here. We lived in the time of the seasons, of the harv
of the migrations of the waterbirds. We lived with nothing between u
the stars. . . . This was paradise on earth."
For a long while I stare at the plea I have written. It would be disappoi
to know that the poplar slips I have spent so much time on contain a m
as devious, as equivocal, as reprehensible as this.
"Perhaps by the end of the winter," I think, "when hunger truly bite
when we are cold and starving, or when the barbarian is truly at the g
perhaps then I will abandon the locutions of a civil servant with literar
bitions and begin to tell the truth." (154)
The magistrate knows his plea is devious, equivocal, and reprehensi
Empire has made it impossible to live in the time of the season
magistrate means is that "we wished to live"-or "now I wish to liv
"smooth recurrent spinning" cycles (133). He is tempted by such e
"illusions" till nearly the end of the novel:"
Who am I to jeer at life-giving illusions? Is there any better way to pass
last days than in dreaming of a saviour with a sword who will scatter the e
hosts and forgive us the errors that have been committed by others in our
and grant us a second chance to build our earthly paradise? I . . . con
trate on bringing into life the image of myself as a swimmer swimming
even, untiring strokes through the medium of time, a medium more inert
water, without ripples, pervasive, colourless, odourless, dry as paper
The magistrate knows a better way to pass these last days of waitin
instead of dreaming of a savior, the magistrate reassumes his civil ad
after the departure of Colonel Joll (the "saviour with a sword") an
a savior's role himself: "In all measures for our preservation I have ta
(145). And instead of evading the time of history, the magistrate en
apparently still seeking a medium for his story that will be less iner
colorless, odorless, dry, and ahistorical than a plea that "We lived
of the seasons."
The magistrate's narrative, finally, is more than just escaping the time of history.
It is more than just an evasion like the oblivion into which the magistrate falls
when ritually washing the barbarian girl's wounded feet-"These dreamless spells
are like death to me, or enchantment, blank, outside time" (31). It is more than
the "annihilation" to which his "shame" has given him "the greatest indifference"
(21). The magistrate's present tense also records his ongoing struggle to narrate
oppression, to discover how-if-one can speak for those with no voice of their
own without imposing a voice on them. This narration with no possible occasion
suggests the impossibility of narrating South Africa's agony, an impossibility which
justifies Coetzee's choice to treat the events of its history allegorically. Coetzee's
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78 The Journal of Narrative Technique
choice of allegory may have seemed to evade grappling with the historic
of South African oppression. In fact, history is inscribed in Coetzee's
the record both of the magistrate's attempt to erase it and of his attempt
stand it.'2
When the magistrate does finally confront Colonel Joll, fleeing to th
after his disastrous desert campaign against the barbarians, the magi
"abhor" (146) without "blaming . . . or accusing" (126). Colonel Jol
the black glasses from which, to the magistrate's earlier horror, came "no
gaze but only my doubled image cast back at me" (44). And Joll seems
clean"-like the magistrate, perhaps purified by his experiences, or, like
Pilate, denying his guilt (washing is a recurrent motif in the novel). Jol
answer the magistrate's gaze with a reciprocal gaze, however, and the m
message to him is also reciprocal:
I have a lesson for him that I have long meditated. I mouth the words an
watch him read them on my lips: "The crime that is latent in us we m
inflict on ourselves," I say. I nod and nod, driving the message home. "No
on others," I say: I repeat the words, pointing at my chest, pointing at h
He watches my lips, his thin lips move in imitation, or perhaps in derisio
I do not know. (146-7)
The magistrate cannot know whether his lesson is received with deri
gratitude. But his struggle has not been only to teach Colonel Joll a les
lesson we learn, we learn by imposing it "on ourselves," "Not on others.
person, present-tense narrative with no conceivable occasion of tellingno conceivable addressee-reflects the magistrate's belief that the lessons
must first be for ourselves. More important than any change in Colone
magistrate himself has changed by learning to face the shame of being
of Empire in sheep's clothing" (72). Recalling "lecturing" a prisoner b
"sentenced him" (a passage partly quoted above), the magistrate concl
I remember the uneasy shame I felt on days like that ... "When some m
suffer unjustly," I said to myself, "it is the fate of those who witness th
suffering to suffer the shame of it." But the specious consolation of this thoug
could not comfort me. . . . So I continued in my duties until one day even
overtook me. (139)
The immediacy of Coetzee's present-tense narration indeed reflects how
events overtook" a man who continued, partly for his own sake, to try
with them, a continued grappling that the present-tense narration also
But, again, the magistrate's narrative is not merely "for my own sake, as
to myself alone," an endeavor to save himself since he cannot save Emp
tims, like the "specious consolation" he abandons of refusing to witness
beating. His narrative does not merely testify that "in this farthest outpo
Empire of the light there existed one man who in his heart was not a b
(104). Nor is the magistrate's narrative merely a "lecture" to some op
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Escaping the "Time of History" 79
"other" about the reasons for his oppression, nor is it merely the "spe
solation" of bearing "witness" to the suffering of an oppressed othe
even merely a "lesson" delivered to some oppressive other. It is an acco
is-an ongoing struggle with one's own proper role in events, like th
all liberal South Africans must face. It is an account of-it is-a strugg
how best to tell the history of oppression, without imposing that history
else (particularly on those most directly oppressed). It is an account
struggle to determine the value of that telling, to determine the value
can have in the context of a political struggle that is itself all too p
These factors turn Coetzee's novel into a narrative about how to narr
like those of the novel. Waiting for the Barbarians becomes an allegor
of South African politics but also of the role of the novelist, particular
only) the white liberal novelist, in South African political life as we
wider literary world. The present tense is appropriate for a first-perso
of how to narrate something-for an autobiography, so to speak, of t
and endeavors of a writer like J. M. Coetzee. And the existence of a n
with no conceivable occasion of narration suggests a paradoxical hope
solution cannot be found for narrating without imposing history, at leas
to find a solution can be recorded. There may be no implied interlocu
magistrate's monologue, "no one to say it to," in Lance Olsen's words (
theless, it has been said.
Moreover, the magistrate's recurrent dream of children building a "s
or "snowcastle" (109)-from which, instead of melting itself, all the ch
the barbarian girl "melt away" (10, cf. 37)-offers, in its resolution,
aginative model for the magistrate's narrative. Like the novel as a whole,
is also, in many ways, atemporal. It is recurrent: "Night after night I
the waste of the snowswept square, trudging toward the figure at its cen
firming each time that the town she is building is empty of life" (53
timelessness typical of dreams: "I am again in the desert, plodding thro
space towards an obscure goal" (79); "Each step takes an age" (52). And
occurrence (10) foreshadows the magistrate's first sight of the barbari
his later dreams of her before Colonel Joll returns triumphantly from
with the first of the barbarian prisoners (20).
In its atemporality, therefore, the recurrent dream becomes a model for
as a whole. And it resolves, in the novel's final pages, in a vision of a
future that can perhaps replace the "mad" and "virulent" vision of "
cities" and "the rape of populations" on which Empire feeds by nigh
the early dreams, the magistrate perceives to his dismay that the barb
snowcastle, always "empty of life," resembles his own frontier outpost
must put people there!' I want to say. No sound comes from my mo
In a later dream, the barbarian girl is "digging away in the bowels of t
apparently undermining it. But "I am mistaken, it is not a castle sh
but a clay oven": "now I can see that what she is holding out to me i
bread, still hot, with a coarse steaming broken crust. A surge of grati
through me. 'Where did a child like you learn to bake so well in the
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80 The Journal of Narrative Technique
want to say. I open my arms to embrace her" (109). Coetzee's barbarians
nomadic herdsmen, "nourished from infancy on meat and milk, foreign to . . . t
virtues of the placid grains and fruits" (72). '3 The magistrate, in his dream,
parently recalls the barbarian girl watching clay ovens being built and bread
ing baked in the desert by the three men who of empire helped the magistra
escort her back to her people (62-3). The magistrate's final meditation on writ
a narrative for posterity-though it begins by doubting his ability to do jus
to this year of "rage and woe"-concludes by echoing this memory and this dre
with a hope that "pacific grains" and "benign fruits" may replace the "imag
of disaster" on which Empire "feeds":
I think: "I have lived through an eventful year, yet understand no more of
it than a babe in arms. Of all the people of this town I am the one least fitted
to write a memorial. Better the blacksmith with his cries of rage and woe."
I think: "But when the barbarians taste bread, new bread and mulberry
jam, bread and gooseberry jam, they will be won over to our ways. They will
find that they are unable to live without the skills of men who know how to
rear the pacific grains, without the arts of women who know how to use the
benign fruits." (155)
And the magistrate's actual narrative concludes not with a dream of children
with real children, children who alone can "live in time like fish in water,
birds in air," who "never doubt that . . . one day they will grow to be strong
their fathers, fertile like their mothers, that they will live and prosper and r
their own children and grow old in the place where they were born" (133).
children are building a snowman in the middle of the outpost's central squa
symbolically filling their nearly-abandoned town with new life, suggesting t
the town may find-suggesting a hope that South Africa may find-despite "wait
for the barbarians," a real "second chance to build our earthly paradise" (14
inexplicably joyful, I approach them across the snow. ...
It is not a bad snowman.
This is not the scene I dreamed of. Like much else nowadays I leave it feeling stupid, like a man who lost his way long ago but presses on along a road
that may lead nowhere. (155-6)
As Gayatri Spivak describes the insights of the literary theory that most interests
her: "Whereas in other kinds of discourse ['of the human sciences'] there is a
move toward the final truth of a situation, literature . . . displays that the truth
of a human situation is the itinerary of not being able to find it" (77). The
magistrate's present-tense narration cannot describe an itinerary of where the road
will lead (although it "presses on" instead of merely "waiting"). It has, however,
described an "inexplicably joyful" vision of reconciliation and shared benefit,
the dream of one no longer "infected" with Empire's "mad vision" (133). This
"pacific" and "benign" vision cannot be imposed on others, unlike "the history
that Empire imposes on its subjects" (154), but only offered, like the "new bread
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Escaping the "Time of History" 81
and . . . jam" by which the magistrate hopes the barbarians wil
If the real world-like the magistrate's world-can never be preci
I dreamed of," a novel such as Waiting for the Barbarians, Coet
can help our children press on towards that vision. And, in a si
extreme political and economic oppression as South Africa's-wher
if they are too specific, can seem to impose a history-an unspeci
allegory may make a more acceptable offering, which is, becau
able, perhaps even politically more efficacious.
The Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio
1. I would argue for omniscience because there are two "yous"-a male and a fema
"reader"-both of whose thoughts are reported, or, if you prefer, hypothesized. Fo
example: "You are seated at a cafe table, reading . . . and waiting for Ludmilla. Yo
mind is occupied by two simultaneous concerns: the interior one, with your readin
and the other, with Ludmilla, who is late" (140).
2. Chapter Five of Cohn's earlier Transparent Minds discusses specific, problematic
amples of first-person present-tense narration, examples on the way "From Narrati
to Monologue," according to the title of Cohn's chapter. In a relationship betwe
academic scholarship and fiction perhaps uniquely reciprocal in literary history, Coetze
writing as scholar rather than novelist, quotes from Cohn's chapter in his own 198
MLN article on iterative and non-iterative present tense in Kafka's "The Burrow" (Hbiti
for the Barbarians was originally published in 1980 by Secker and Warburg, London
and in 1981 by Ravan, Johannesburg). In his article, Coetzee recognizes that, althoug
nothing in Kafka's opening "conflict[s] with the time and tense conventions of retrosp
tive first-person narration (558), nevertheless, with the fourth paragraph and a sh
to the iterative, habitual present, "relations between the time ofnarration (the movi
now of the narrator's utterance) and the time of the narrative (referential time)" becom
"more complex and indeed baffling, the more closely we read the text" (557). In oth
words, Coetzee recognizes that "The Burrow" imitates a narrative with no possi
occasion of narration (even were its narrator not a burrowing animal). Coetzee argu
that because sometimes "the now of the narration seems to be cotemporal with
now of the action" and sometimes "there are unsettling passages in which the n
seems to reveal an iterative face," Kafka's protagonist cannot safeguard the future throu
knowledge of the past: "In the, so to speak, blinkered present of the text the ca
of his own hopelessness remains obscure to the narrator" (563). Time in "The Bu
row" is discontinuous and therefore always a time of crisis and anxiety, according
Coetzee: "The task of building the burrow itself represents a life devoted to try
to still anxiety, naturally without success; for without warning 'the enemy' is in t
burrow," and "the lead-up time that once looked innocent now looks in retrospect l
a time of warning" (575). Similarly, Waiting for the Barbarians describes a time
crisis-a time of waiting for the enemy-that seems in retrospect less innocent.
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82 The Journal of Narrative Technique
3. On sight and blindness in HWiting for the Barbarians, see Olsen (53-4) an
I am grateful to Professor Penner for bibliographic information.
4. Josephine Dodd argues that Magda "casts and recasts herself according to
models" of madness or vengeance because "the only fictional models she has
the products not only of phallogocentric culture but also of the First Wo
5. A wonderfully brief and bitter satire on how "slippery" language becom
hegemony is the poem "In Detention" by Christopher van Wyk that Coetzee a
Brink included in A Land Apart, their recent anthology of contemporary South
He fell from the ninth floor
on a piece of soap while washing
on a piece of soap while washing
He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself while washing
He slipped from the ninth floor
He hung from the ninth floor
He slipped on the ninth floor while washing
He fell from a piece of soap while slipping
He hung from the ninth floor
He washed from the ninth floor while slipping
He hung from a piece of soap while washing (50)
Colonel Joll's official report of what befell his first barbarian prisoner in detention
is equally slippery: "During the course of the interrogation contradictions became apparent in the prisoner's testimony. Confronted with these contradictions, the prisoner
became enraged and attacked the investigating officer. A scuffle ensued during which
the prisoner fell heavily against the wall. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful" (6).
Lance Olsen (55) compares the "brutal flatness" of this report with the magistrate's
description of the prisoner's corpse. But Joll's report conceals brutality and agency;
the magistrate's description records that brutality and agency have been concealed. Joll's
report recalls a real concealment: at the inquest into Stephen Biko's death in 1977, South
African Security Police interrogators claimed Biko's fatal brain injuries were sustained
after he "went berserk" and, in an ensuing struggle with police, "fell with his head
against the wall" (Woods 243).
6. That the events of the magistrate's imprisonment are nonetheless narrated might be
seen as further evidence that Coetzee's novel is neither stream-of-consciousness nor
interior monologue.
7. For representative neo-Marxist responses to Coetzee, see Vaughan (1982) and Rich
(1984). Rich argues (citing Vaughan) that Waiting for the Barbarians does not show
"the historical forces that produce actual imperial systems at particular phases of
history"; in particular, it does not show "capitalist economic processes leading to
capitalist imperialist civilization" (385). That is, Coetzee analyzes not class but racial
strife: oppression of the barbarians in his novel "appears to have no material logic what-
soever" (Vaughan 137). Surprisingly, Vaughan misses a chance to indict Waiting for
the Barbarians as "liberal" and optimistic by missing what I take to be the novel's
emphasis on "the self-correctibility of individual interactions," which Vaughan iden-
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Escaping the "Time of History" 83
tifies as part of the "liberal aesthetic" (120). Rich too misses the novel's fin
in my view-concluding that it represents "a moral dead end" (389)-by
the magistrate's interim positions as his final position and, indeed, as Coe
position. I suggest the novel might be read as Coetzee's anticipation of suc
a meditation on whether and how literature might contribute to the "self-cor
of individual interactions."
8. And thus they "provoke" the repression that could potentially incite such insurrections-
except that Coetzee's barbarians simply vanish into the desert before their oppressors
(11, 147): virtually all "evidence" in the novel of barbarian unrest on the frontier is
in the form of rumors-and the first rumors, ironically, "reach us from the capital" (8).
9. As in the Dead Sea or the Great Salt Lake, mineral salts accumulate because water
flows in and evaporates without an outlet.
10. The isolated protagonist-narrator of In the Heart of the Country, the reverse of the
magistrate, lives in an "eternal present" (116) but craves "history." Though Magda knows
"Lyric is my medium, not chronicle" (71), she has "grown impatient with the sluggish
flow of time. Once I would have been content to fill my days with musings; but now...
I sit tapping my fingernails on the furniture, listening to the tick of the clock, waiting
for the next thing to happen. Once I lived in time as a fish in water, breathing it, drink-
ing it, sustained by it. Now I kill time and time kills me" (80). Impatient for history,
Magda hears voices accusing her of creating it herself, "of turning my life into a fic-
tion, out of boredom. They accuse me . . . of making myself more violent, more
various, more racked with torment than I really am, as though I were reading myself
like a book, and found the book dull, and put it aside and began to make myself up
instead. . . . It is not in rebellion against true oppression that I have made my history,
they say, but in reaction against the tedium of serving my father, ordering the
maids ... , sitting out the years; when I could find no enemy outside, when hordes
of brown horsemen would not pour out of the hills waving their bows and ululating,
I made an enemy out of myself, out of the peaceful, obedient self who wanted no more
than to do her father's will and wax fat and full of days" (128). In Constantine Cavafy's
poem, "Waiting for the Barbarians," from which Coetzee's later novel takes its title,
and which too is in the present tense, civilization also needs "hordes of brown horsemen"
in order to define itself: "Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven't
come ... /Now what's going to happen to us without barbarians? / Those people were
a kind of solution" (33).
11. The similar attempted evasions of the protagonist of Kafka's "The Burrow" make "the
logic of iterative narrative . . . clear," according to Coetzee's MLN article: "Failing
to trace the present to roots in the past, Kafka's narrator embarks on a series of projects to wrap up the past as a round of habit which includes the present and, insomuch
as it is repeated, projects into the future. . . . The crucial move . . . is . . . away from
linear past-present-future tense organization toward a cyclical aspectual organization
of time.
"This move-which I would call a ruse-is intended to capture the relation of past
to present to future by trapping them all in an iterative pseudo-present. But as we have
seen, the ruse continually fails.
"By talking in terms of failed narrative ruses I may give the impression that Kafka
is in some sense against, above, and superior to the narrator of 'The Burrow,' that if
he does not know what a successful narrative strategy might be he is at least aware
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84 The Journal of Narrative Technique
of the futility of the narrator's strategy. This picture would entirely falsify the sto
What we have in 'The Burrow,' rather, is a struggle-not only the representati
the struggle but the struggle itself-with time experienced as continual crisis, and
perienced at a pitch of anxiety that leads to attempts to tame it with whatever m
language offers" (576-77). I have argued that Waiting for the Barbarians, too, is
only the representation of the struggle but the struggle itself." Coetzee, who can reco
"failed narrative ruses" in Kafka, can surely recognize them in his own protagon
earlier abortive narratives. And if Coetzee, like Kafka, is not "against, above
superior" to his narrator, nevertheless the magistrate, with his "inexplicably joy
sense of having a "pacific" and "benign" vision to offer, has gone beyond mere fr
taming of anxiety and is thus "above" Kafka's burrowing animal.
12. In the neo-realist American fiction in the present tense referred to in my introduct
present-tense narration may arise partly as an extended imitation of the intermit
historical present in oral narrative: "So I go to school and this girl says, 'Where's
candy?' I said, 'I don't have it.' She says, powww!" (quoted in Labov 359; sportscas
stage directions, and the convention of writing about literature in the present tense
other plausible influences). However, Coetzee's choice of present-tense narration pa
to suggest the magistrate's longing to escape the time of Empire recalls other nov
who have used the present as a narrative tense to suggest a rejection of "Empire"
its "history." Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country, a neo-realist American novel w
heroine struggles with the history of the Vietnam War in which her father was k
begins and ends with sections in the third-person present tense in which the he
acknowledges that history by driving with her family to Washington to visit the
nam War Memorial. Margaret Atwood's allegorical The Handmaid's Tale is even cl
to Coetzee: Atwood's narrator begins her story in the first-person present tense
shifts increasingly to the past as she gradually recaptures the painful memories
brainwashing by a repressive regime has robbed her of-as, that is, she re-enters w
she regards as her genuine history. Atwood, whose heroine is deprived of wr
materials by this repressive regime, makes the occasion of narration nearly as m
a mystery in her novel as does Coetzee and reveals it only in an epilogue.
13. Olsen quotes an early reviewer who calls the novel's geography "garbled," and he him
notes its "strangeness": "How can there be snow in the desert?" (Olsen 47, 50
the Gobi Desert, however (whose sparse upland grasslands bordering the Chinese Emp
are inhabited by migratory, pastoral Mongols), it does snow. The barbarian girl's stra
black hair makes the Gobi Desert a plausible source for Coetzee's geography (
American Southwest is another), but the population of his novel also suggests a S
African reference: Coetzee's hunter-gatherer river folk, "older even than the nom
(18), may be intended to recall the Khoisan, South Africa's aboriginal inhabitants, w
the pastoral, nomadic barbarians find a rough equivalent in the Bantu-speaking pe
of southern Africa. But we surely do ourselves a disservice if we misread Coet
novel as merely about South Africa. The antagonism Empire's planter-settlers
towards the barbarian herdsmen echoes not only white-black relations in South A
but also Cain's murder of the shepherd Abel and is thus an allegory for the oppre
by any men of their brothers.
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Escaping the "Time of History" 85
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