When I was fifteen, my maternal grandmother, who hosted a lively reading group in Washington, D.C., handed me J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians and said, “Read this.”
I was perched on the uncomfortable Wormley sofa in her living room, which she’d decorated in the late fifties along scrupulously modern lines. Everything was rectilinear and muted—a contrast to the bright confusion of perfumes and colognes that still hung in the air from the previous night’s Great Books discussion.
I flipped to the last page, surprised by how thin it was. “156 pages?” I said. “This is a novel?”
“He’s a new author, a South African,” she said. “Read. Then we’ll talk.”
I was skeptical. The book seemed too slim. Besides, this was the early 1980s in Washington, DC.; South Africa was constantly in the news, and the capital was buzzing with talk of the “evils of apartheid.” Apartheid was obviously evil, but, in my adolescent wisdom, I considered the liberal stance somewhat hypocritical. The District’s population was nearly three-quarters African American, yet there were virtually no black people in our neighborhood—unless you counted the ones who were hired to serve drinks at reading groups.
But I was an obedient grandson, so I read. By the end of the first chapter, I was fully absorbed in the novel. When I reached the end, I turned back to page one and read it over.
This was not like my grandmother’s other books, classics that felt far removed from my life. Coetzee’s allegory of empire was immediate and timely. It drilled right through my defenses, elevating and shattering me at the same time.
Waiting for the Barbarians is the story of a well-intentioned man—if a weak one—who has spent a comfortable life as a magistrate at the edge of an unnamed empire. One day, an officer from a new government bureau rides into town with orders to locate and destroy the local insurgency, the so-called “barbarians” of the title.
The magistrate knows perfectly well that there is no insurgency—that this is simply a witch hunt orchestrated to justify a new level of government oppression. At first, he turns a blind eye to the torture of innocent tribesmen. When his conscience finally forces him to act, he discovers what it’s like to receive the full force of his empire’s wrath.
Waiting for the Barbarians is a cautionary tale for the rich and powerful of any era. It says, if this is what your people are doing to others, beware; they could do it to you.
Just as gripping as the story was the prose, which was shockingly quiet at the line level, yet full-throated in its outrage. Coetzee had somehow managed to erase any sign of himself as the author, leaving behind a ghostly feeling of authority. The sentences were stripped down and mathematically precise, even as they deliberately blurred time and place. Above all, there was no waste. The book seemed less written than unearthed: an ancient labyrinth whose walls had been formed by geological heat and pressure.
Over the years, I reread Waiting for the Barbarians many times, and always with renewed awe, but when it came time for me to write Marshlands, I consciously avoided it. I was afraid of its power over me. The last thing I wanted to do, in my own allegory of the excesses of empire, was to write a pastiche!
But before I handed in the final revision of Marshlands, I couldn’t help myself: I picked up my grandmother’s dog-eared copy and started to turn the familiar pages.
It was a bittersweet experience. I was relieved to find that the book I’d written was my own, and, what’s more, deeply American. I’d learned important lessons from Coetzee about authorial distance and pathos, but my characterizations and narrative structure bore little resemblance to his.
Nevertheless, I still felt like I was sitting at the master’s feet.
I remember my grandmother’s knowing smile when I reported back to her about the novel. She listened thoughtfully at the kitchen table, tugging at the string of her decaffeinated teabag as I sang the book’s praises. She knew it was going to be an important book for me. She’s been gone for a while now. How I wish I could hand her a copy of Marshlands and say, “Read. Then we’ll talk.”
MATTHEW OLSHAN is the author of Marshlands, a novel, and several books for young readers, including Finn, The Flown Sky, and The Mighty Lalouche. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.