Waiting

Exhibit 1.1.9

Waiting for the Barbarians


Okay, so I’m going to start posting about books I’ve read (or at least books I liked). I’ve said I was going to start doing this at least a half dozen times, but now I feel compelled, both by my desire to have some record of what I’m reading and my desire to stop looking at that creepy picture from the last post.

So, Waiting for the Barbarians. I’ll say this: it’s the first Coetzee I’ve read, and I’d read more. Coetzee previously belonged tangentially to a group of writers that, for reasons I’ve never been quite clear on, I steered clear of. Mostly these are novelists who came to prominence (at least on my timeline) in the 1980s and I–correctly or incorrectly–associate with a sort of smug misanthropy of upperclass white dudes of that era. In fact, if these writers formed a basketball team in 1987, it would look like this:

PG: Martin Amis
SG: Bret Easton Ellis
SF: Jay McInerney
PF: Tom Wolfe
C: John Updike

Coach: Christopher Hitchens

It would be a very terrible basketball team.

I formed this opinion without having read any of their books–or having seen them play basketball–and in the books I’ve read since, I was sometimes right and I was sometimes wrong. Certainly these writers are better than I probably want them to be and certainly there are strains of whatever lazy mysogony, pompousness, and reactionary fear I suspected to be in their work in books that I actually do like from around that time. But anyway, Coetzee somehow got lumped in with these folks in my mind, and I’m not even sure why. Actually, I probably know exactly why. The first book of his I heard of, Disgrace, which everyone seems to love, reads in summary like a book I would hate. Weary professor seduces student and doesn’t understand why this gets him fired? O fuck right off.

Still, I guess that’s not what the book is really about (or at least he learns his lesson or something when his daughter is raped which, sigh, whatever). And while I can’t speak for that book, I can now understand it’s probably not the book I think it is. Waiting for the Barbarians could also be summarized in ways that make it sound like that sort of book, but to do so would be to miss the point which is that it knows it’s that sort of book. Or at least that the protagonist is that sort of character, eventually realizes it, and spends most of the book trying to figure out why and to what end. Briefly, the Magistrate runs a town on the frontier of an unnamed Empire slowly building to a war against the nomadic barbarians who have been pushed to the mountains. Once the war, or something like it, starts, the Magistrate falls in with a barbarian girl who has been in his jail, and the rest of the book charts the causes and consequences of his infatuation.

That he doesn’t understand his infatuation is really the point in a book that is basically one big fable about colonialism. All the other aspects of it are somewhere in the representation of the Empire, but the Magistrate himself–a learned and liberal character–enacts the most subtle and damaging form of oppression in his treatment of the girl. He’s disgusted by torture but doesn’t understand that his ritualized and asexual washing of the girl’s broken body is perhaps even more dehumanizing than what broke it (as at least that makes sense in the context of a war). So, yes, it’s objectifying but intentionally so as he spends the latter pages of the book trying to understand what happened between the two of them while his body, like the Empire itself, begins to crumble.

Perhaps my favorite thing about the book is how enthusiastically it’s written. Honestly, I expected to find out it was his first novel, but I guess it’s his 3rd. At times it’s almost boyish in its obvious pleasure in describing the harsh landscape or in the Magistrate’s long self-reflective passages. Those were my favorite moments, but the book works on the whole, too. Maybe it’s allegory (we’re all the Empire!) is a little simplistic, but the exploration of colonial guilt is powerful and complex. On my basketball team of writers I liked more than I thought I would, Coetzee can play small forward.

3 Comments / Posted in Books, Fiction, Waiting

Exhibit 22.24

Afghanistan

It’s always fun when you get to hear a speech that you can say with a fair amount of certainty will be played for tragic irony in movies a generation from now (I imagine it playing on an iPhone as Forrest Gump III kisses a girl dressed like Miley Cyrus as he graduates from the University of Phoenix). Which is not to say it’s the wrong decision–I certainly wouldn’t know–just that it is so clearly the only tenable one that the best anyone can hope for is understanding of that fact. There’s no longer any real criteria for success and there may never have been–democracy! O!–but eight years later it seems silly to imagine we can just up and leave without consequences for ourselves let alone the men (and especially women) of Afghanistan and Pakistan. But it’s equally silly to imagine that bullets in the service of a corrupt government will make anything better.


Which is why we get to again have speeches about exiting that somehow announce major troop escalations. Afghanistan is not Vietnam but it is not Iraq either. The “success” of “the surge” there would seemingly be irrelevant in this discussion but there’s no denying it’s attractive to ignore those distinctions. On the one hand you have the possibility of some protracted withdrawal that would attempt, pointlessly, not to lead to the fall of the government and regional instability and on the other you have the dream of just a few more months with a few more troops and…

It’s easy to see the good that might be done. It’s easy to see how no one else is willing to take responsibility for the world and feel like you have to. It’s easy to see the odds of Islamabad’s collapse following Kabul’s and have your hand forced by terrifying hypotheticals.

Who knows. To paraphrase Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul, “In Afghanistan, the choices are frequently narrow.”

Comment / Posted in Politics, Waiting, Wars

Exhibit 21.3

I Am Currently Waiting

For a couch delivery and am subsequently very late to a party being thrown by a professor for all of the new TAs going through teacher training. This is very disconcerting, but I told the people delivering the couch that I’d be here at a certain time and damnit I’m not a quitter. That certain time was a while ago, but they assure me they’re coming. This is never a fun conversation:

Guy: Where are you? We’re coming from the 45.
Me: Oh, take that to the 10 then the second exit.
Guy: The 610?
Me: I don’t think so.
Guy: What?
Me: What? Is there a 610?
Guy: There’s a 610 somewhere.

But now they just called and said they should be here in 10 minutes. Of course, they said they’d be here in 10 minutes an hour ago, but what can I do? I’ll tell you what I can do. I can just sit here and put my nervous energy into typing rather than wondering at what point I’ll be too late to actually go to said professor’s house and enjoy one of the two different types of sparkling water he had. This conversation is more fun than the other conversation:

Professor: And I’ll have two different types of sparkling water.
Me: [takes notes]

Things I might say if I ever get to the professor’s house:

1. “The Professor’s House is my favorite Willa Cather novel.”
2. “Actually, it’s the only one I even sort of liked.”
3. “Death Comes to the Archbishop was okay, I guess.”
4. “My apartment now has a place to sit down.”
5. “Hi, am I too late to come into your party?”
6. “Wasn’t there a weird thing with a plane engine in The Professor’s House or am I thinking of The Rocketeer?”
7. “I like your drapes.”
8. “Where’s the 610? Is that better than the 10?”
9. “I’m Adam. No, not that Adam.”
10. “Hi, I’m Adam. Yes, that one. The one that was late.”

Hmm, that took me 11 minutes to type and based on the fact that I’m still typing this from my Aero bed and not at all drinking sparkling water, I’m thinking something has gone wrong.

Things that probably exist off the 610:

1. The afternoon moon
2. Magical be-couched houses
3. The 1410
4. Trees made of hugs
5. Reverse fountains that suck water out of the air

And the couch is here! Goodbye.

Comment / Posted in Bye, Couches, Waiting