Research at the Ransom Center:
To Cape Town and back, via Mongolia
By David Attwell
The novel that brought J. M. Coetzee to the attention of European and American readers was his third, Waiting for the Barbarians (1981). He began writing it on July 11, 1977, sketching an idea into a notebook. On September 20 he began the almost daily business of drafting, at the very moment when the South African censors were trying to reach a decision about his previous novel, In the Heart of the Country—copies sent from the London publisher, Secker and Warburg, were under an embargo at the airport in Johannesburg.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Waiting for the Barbarians is its setting: a remote outpost of an empire of no specific time or place—it could be almost any empire in history. Critics have wondered whether this highly fictionalized milieu was a tactic to evade the South African censors, but when he began writing it, the novel was set in a recognizable Cape Town, Coetzee's birthplace. He began by writing a story about South Africa in the aftermath of a revolutionary war, in which Robben Island is no longer a prison for Nelson Mandela and his comrades but an embarkation station for white refugees who are fleeing the republic in United Nations-chartered ships.
The style he used was naturalism of a kind derived from Emile Zola, a style that his fellow-Capetonian Alex La Guma had used in his novels. However, the naturalism was a false start, and the early versions are marked "ABANDONED." The plot was to be a dark love story exploring the sexual tensions that are released by a revolutionary situation. With Robert Musil in the background, the central character, a Greek South African with the name of Manos Milis, was to be "an explorer of the vitalities thrown up by the last days of the republic. Literally a fin de siècle book." Milis is the manager of a refugee station, writing a book about the fall of Constantinople.
It is clear from the drafts that Coetzee felt dissatisfied with this project, and it was only when he abandoned the idea of writing about Cape Town that he began to make progress. An important catalyst was a magnificent poem by Robert Duncan, "Song of the Borderguard," which begins:
The man with his lion under the shed of wars
sheds his belief as if he shed tears.
The sound of words waits—
a barbarian host at the borderline of sense.
Eventually, it was a poem by Constantin Cavafy, "Waiting for the Barbarians," that gave Coetzee his title, but Duncan's poem was more influential in the early stages. Coetzee gave up on Milis, focusing instead on the life of a beleaguered official who is trying to keep the peace in his border settlement. To flesh out the setting with suitable detail, Coetzee researched the geography of Mongolia and compiled word-lists from Mongolian.
In one respect, the novel's sources were South African. In the very weeks that Coetzee was wrestling his material into shape, his country was convulsed by yet another political catastrophe: the death in detention of the black consciousness leader, Stephen Biko. An inquest into Biko's death took place in open court, which enabled the press, the liberal Cape Times especially, to cover it in detail. Coetzee kept press clippings and followed it closely. The transformation of the magistrate's placid border town by a reign of terror run by police agents arriving from the capital, who set about torturing barbarian suspects, reflects the influence of Biko's death on the novel's composition. The novel therefore took shape through a seemingly contradictory process: both a distancing—into an unspecified empire—and a homecoming into the violence of apartheid.
As with other novels, once he had found his subject, Coetzee embarked on a reading campaign to flesh out the treatment. In his notebook he began to list themes and quotations: on death and despair (Kierkegard, Henry James, Boris Pasternak on suicide); on art (Flaubert is quoted as saying, "In days gone by people thought that only sugar cane yielded sugar. Nowadays they get it from practically everything; it's the same way with poetry."); on pleasure (Roland Barthes); on Tantrism (Octavio Paz); on space (Henri Bergson); on sound (Walter Ong); on Madame Bovary (Leo Bersani); on dreams (Freud). Ong is quoted as saying, "Barbarians turn out rather regularly to be the custodians...of the culture on which they prey." He reads Paul Ricoeur on the body; Simone de Beauvoir on what it means for a woman to be "dressed;" George Steiner on fantasies of invasion. Simone Weil's aphorism finds its way into the text: "the crime which is latent in us we must inflict on ourselves."
The early drafts were done by hand, but the first typescript would have been produced in Austin. Coetzee spent the spring semester of 1979 at The University of Texas at Austin on sabbatical leave from the University of Cape Town, attending seminars on syntax in the Department of Linguistics. The period in Austin was followed by a further three months in Berkeley, California. By the time he returned to Cape Town in September 1979, the novel was complete—at which point, he immediately started drafting the next one, Life and Times of Michael K., which would win him the Booker Prize.
South African by birth, David Attwell is Professor of English at the University of York in the U.K. His work on the J. M. Coetzee papers at the Ransom Center is supported by Britain's Leverhulme Foundation.