On South African Literature and Becoming Human

200pxjmcoetzee_waitingforthebarbari Zakes Mda in The Boston Review:

When J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians was published in 1980, it marked a literary paradigm shift. Until then conventional wisdom dictated that South African novels could bear witness to the truth of apartheid only through realism. Whereas South African dramatists had developed over several decades a highly stylized and experimental theater that drew from both African performance modes and European models, fiction writers stubbornly stuck to a faithful reproduction of South African experience. Reflecting realist aesthetic commitments, and ignoring the mix of experimentalism and political engagement in South African theater, they held that art was not for its own sake, but a weapon in the struggle for freedom and human betterment.

Then came Coetzee.

Waiting for the Barbarians upset the expectations of many readers and critics who had grown accustomed to documentary representations of South Africa from the country’s interpreters. The novel was seen as the height of self-indulgence: life under apartheid demanded that writers create a translucent window through which the outside world could see authentic oppression. Some critics claimed that Coetzee’s use of allegory was an escape from South African reality because the novel, set in a nameless empire and lacking specificity of locale and period, was susceptible to an ahistorical and apolitical reading. The question of the author’s political commitment was raised not only in response to this novel but all his subsequent ones. Even Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer weighed in that Coetzee’s work, and indeed Coetzee himself, abhorred all political and revolutionary solutions. While acknowledging that Coetzee’s work was magnificent, and commending his superb and fearless creative energy, she rapped him on the knuckles for a mode of storytelling that kept him aloof from the grubby and tragic events of South Africa.