Please note! This essay has been submitted by a student.
African literature has a unique place amongst the various literatures of the world. It is political and embodies the collective sentiment of the people of the vast land. The “dark continent”, “the heart of darkness” became the playground of the many European forces that spread their imperial roots deep into the land and damaged it. Therefore, the postcolonial literatures of the different countries that have their own unique history with the different colonial powers are exceptional in their own way. However, there is a common thread that runs throughout the multiple works that have been produced in the postcolonial phase, which is the theme of writing back to the empire. There is continuous effort to rewrite history on their own terms. The European discourse about the land and its people was for a long time in history the indisputable fact. The postcolonial enterprise that started with the end of the colonial rule in the 20th century seeks to actively dismantle the erroneous discourse that has so far been propagated. It is also involved in the effort to reconstruct a new identity, and replace the history of the centre with a history of the masses, the people, the new postcolonial subjects.
J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians can be read as a counter narrative attacking the dominant historiography of the South African nation state. The novel allegorizes the socio-political condition of the South African state during the era of Apartheid. The state authoritarianism is critiqued by Coetzee’s postmodern narrative. Kwame Anthony Appiah in his essay “The Postcolonial and the Postmodern” writes about the different phases of African fiction. The nationalist narratives like Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Laye’s L’ Enfant noir were written in the realist mode to authorise the “return to tradition”. He later discusses the second stage which saw the production of ‘postrealist’ narratives that attacks the conventions of realist fiction seeking to delegitimise the Western narrative and also the nationalist project of the national bourgeoise (Appiah, 122).
Coetzee’s counternarrative has the characteristics of the postrealist mode of narration. The technique he uses is decontextualization, removing the context of the oppression and violence of the Apartheid regime from the novel. The novel is set in a remote unnamed outpost of the Empire during the colonial times, it is insulated from both geographical and historical references. Coetzee uses the present tense in order to suspend the fictional reality and juxtaposes it with the South African reality. “Instead of situating his narrated world through a scaffolding of specifying deixis and referentiality, Coetzee constructs it as a sealed-off enclosure which seems to be turning in on itself (Griem, 76).” This is purposefully done due to the laws of censorship in South Africa that prevented writers from writing anything remotely accusatory of the authoritarianism of the belligerent state and its policies. The decontextualization of the text thereby becomes a counter discursive practice against the state power. Coetzee constructs an alternate historiography despite state control and also involves the reader in the active process of interpretation. The reader, especially the South African reader can contribute to the intended meaning and project their experience onto the narrative. Thus the postrealist narrative acts a voice for the silenced and the oppressed. It showcases their crude and harsh reality.
The multiple movements, the revolts and the agitations taken up by the oppressed and segregated African community to end Apartheid and the torturous means they used to suppress the dissidence was not included in the major records. Michael Green writes about the South African state’s role in the production of the national “official” historiography and its failure to record the real history of the country. The response to this state action was the revisionist historiography that was documented through the literary form (Green, 87-89). Coetzee in his writing subverts the grand metanarrative that the state produces. Waiting for the Barbarians subverts the idea of the African population that was labelled as “barbaric”, “uncivilized” and “savages” in the South African state. The state propaganda created a discourse around the African community as the enemies of the state causing ruptures in the state of law and order. This is strikingly similar to how “the barbarians” in the novel are portrayed, as the enemies of the empire, waiting to kill and destroy the peace of the outpost, to loot their possessions and rape their daughters. The coloniser’s discourse during the colonial times and the state’s discourse later are exactly the same. The subversive attempts of postcolonialism in writing counter narratives is to undermine the history that has marginalized the colonized and also voice their problems. In the novel, the violence that is committed against the supposed barbarians is beyond cruel. The abuse and torture of innocent and harmless fisherfolk, pains the Magistrate and he fails to convince Colonel Joll and later his associate Mandel otherwise.
The barbarians are characterised as evil by the grand narrative and that becomes the only truth for both authorities and people of the settlement. The Magistrate’s activities are seen are treacherous and he too is maligned. Coetzee uses the Magistrate as the agent through which he deconstructs the faulty discourse of the Empire, projecting simultaneous the condition of alterity of the “barbarians”. According to Coetzee a novel should evolve “its own paradigms and myths, in the process…perhaps going so far as to show up the mythic status of history – in other words, demythologising history” (Green, 91-92). Waiting for the Barbarians is an example of this demythologisation that he discusses. He uses the novel as a sharp critique of the production of myths that the South African state engaged in at the time. The challenge that South African postcolonial artists faced during the Apartheid era was the muffling of their creative arts that challenged the dominant discourse. Coetzee in an interview said, “the true challenge is how not to play the game by the rules of the state, how to establish one’s own authority, how to imagine torture and death on one’s own terms” (Lange, 104). The counter narrative that is constructed in Waiting for the Barbarians is an example of the shrewd manner in which dissent can be voiced indirectly.
The counter narrative plays an important role in bring forth the smaller narratives, that of the marginalized to the forefront. The blind barbarian girl who is adopted by the Magistrate is the representative of the oppressed. Her damaged and tortured body is the text, the narrative that the Magistrate attempts to understand but in vain. The female body is often used in postcolonial narratives to allegorize the nation body. The deformed female body is the object of the Magistrate’s interest and fascination. He seeks to decipher the secrets the girl’s body holds, the history behind its current maimed state. The colonized land, post-colonization was damaged and defiled by the colonizer. The stories of these horrors are ignored by the larger metanarrative woven by the colonizer to retain power and control over the conquered land. The bodies of the colonized too undergo torture and are turned grotesque. The grotesque always attracts negative attention.
The South African natives during the Apartheid period had to endure torture and all forms of persecution for resisting the state apparatuses. Their expression of dissidence against the state that ignored their socio-economic and developmental needs, segregated them to the margins of their native land earned them violence and suppression. Colonel Joll and his troops capture and torture the ordinary fisherfolk believing them to be barbarians. They are detained and kept in seclusion and tortured. Their tortured bodies are exposed to the public for their voyeuristic pleasure. Theses human are silenced and aren’t allowed to speak. Their language is different from that of the Empires therefore their narratives are disregarded.
The novel presents the contrast between the young body of the girl and the ageing body of the Magistrate. The girl’s body is reduced to an object for casual use and is passed around from person to person. The lack of control she has over her own body is representative of the lack of control the people have over their own bodies and land. The South African land was taken over by the British and the Dutch, the natives lacked representation on the national front and were reduced to by-standers as the white man took over control of their land. Their narratives of oppression were not allowed to be publicized even through literature as the state created repressive laws of censorship that ensured that these smaller narratives never saw the light. Many realist novels were censored and prevented from being published as these recorded the narratives of the oppressed which conflicted with the state’s historiography. Jean François Lyotard explains that the counter narrative’s function is to project “little stories” – “the little stories of those individuals and groups whose knowledges and histories have been marginalized, excluded, subjugated or forgotten in the telling of official narratives” (Peters & Lankshear, 2).