Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Waiting for the Irony

So, as the title of this post suggests, I am going to delve into the realm of irony and how it is a very dangerous tool to use when writing. Very much like the song by Alanis, Coetzee takes irony to such a superficial level in his novel Waiting for the Barbarians. The story revolves around a civil magistrate (he is never referred to by name), who's post is in a small frontier town of the elusive and ethereal Empire. As the title suggests, the town is plagued by the phantom of a "barbarian" threat looming somewhere on the horizon line. As you have also probably already guessed it turns out the huge metaphor of the book is that it is the so-called "civilized" guard of the Empire that is actually barbaric, sub-human, and violent. Coetzee makes this metaphor painfully aware in the climactic scene of the novel:

"The Colonel steps forward. Stooping over each prisoner in turn he rubs a handful of dust into his naked back and writes a word with a stick of charcoal. I read the words upside down: 'ENEMY...ENEMY...ENEMY....ENEMY.' He steps back and folds his hands. At a distance of no more than twenty paces he and I contemplate each other. Then the beating begins [...] The game, I see, is to beat them till their backs are washed clean" (105).

The book here takes an unexpected turn, in which Coetzee abandons the subtle and layered complexity of the novel he had been writing, opting instead to beat us over the head with the an overworked metaphor that could have been predicted just by reading the book's title.

I mean don't get me wrong. I am a HUGE fan of Coetzee. His other novels, particularly Elizabeth Costello, were challenging in that they didn't just hand the reader the message of the novel. Ambiguity was something he seemed keen of, forcing anyone who read it to discern and interpret the meaning for themselves. In Waiting for the Barbarians, Coetzee begins ambiguously presenting the magistrate as hero and villain, abusing the love of a "barbarian" woman while at the same time suffering her abuse:

"There are other times when I suffer fits of resentment against my bondage to the ritual of the oiling and rubbing, the drowsiness, the slump into oblivion. I cease to comprehend what pleasure I can ever have found in her obstinate, phlegmatic body, and even discover in myself stirrings of outrage. I become withdrawn, irritable; the girl turns her back and goes to sleep" (41).

My advice, as juvenile as it might be, is for Coetzee to stop trying to make a statement that has been made more times than I can even fathom and stick to what he does best: showing us the barbarity of being a human; an animal barbarity that continues to haunt us despite civilizations best efforts to sublimate it.