Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is tough, unremitting and depressing going but essential reading as we wind down to the end of empire. Mirrored in here are the actions of our own civilisation; just substitute terrorist for barbarian (as A Short History of Progress suggests). I do believe though that Coetzee is ambivalent about who are the true barbarians. Might they not be the enforcers of empire itself? The armies (and police forces)?
And are we at the end? Is there even an end? The author writes that: “Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe.” Indeed so far all civilisations have fallen so it’s as well to have an allegory for the times – tough, unremitting and depressing though it may be.
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Love it! The most wonderful thing about this collection of short shorts is that you can’t outguess the stories. You may think you know where they’re going by convention but it ain’t necessarily so. For instance, The Art of Desire twists and turns so that the ending is always in doubt – masterful. Somerset-based Emma (the E in E.J.) also subverts the odd fairy tale: The Tenth Lord is one such.
My favourite, The Need to Create, has such a fertile premise that it could have gone in a million directions. I swear a novel is struggling to break out too. I also like its political slant and its potential for really bad taste. On a personal note the Winchester (Hampshire, I hope) setting also made me smile.
This is a bloody good read in that it ticks all the thriller boxes. In particular it rattles on at pace, introduces twists and keeps you guessing to the end. On the downside the production of the book seems rather rushed (maybe to beat real life?) with some untidy writing but it’s all perfectly readable.
My focus is on whether it’s believable, especially in the light of my own researches into peak oil and collapse. For that is the “what if” here and my answer is a qualified yes, despite a touch of over-dramatisation. The violence card gets overplayed and too early. One of the characters mentions Lord of the Flies and it’s an apt yardstick. Golding’s classic racks up the menace until it spills over into violence – more effective than starting at high pitch.
One slight plot hole concerns Jenny’s journey, which doesn’t make much geographic sense. Having the M1 erroneously running past Birmingham probably shows some confusion in the author’s mind – good trainspotting by me though!
At the denouement I rather sided with the baddies: this poor old planet does needs a damn good cull of the human race – motivation for my own apocalyptic book really. It’s schadenfreude on a grand scale in revenge for mankind’s arrogance. Much better to get it out on the page than in real life, eh? Discuss.
Because I’m attempting to write something along the lines of Love in the Time of Flu, why not see how the Master does it?
And he is a master of storytelling. This is a book to wave in the face of those who parrot, ‘Show, don’t tell’ when they critique your work. Marquez is an effective teller. He certainly kept me going for 346 big pages.
Having said which, I could happily have put the book down and not read another word at any stage. I wasn’t that interested in how it would turn out and I had no sympathy with any character. I do sympathise with that because it’s hard to write people in that fine line between sugar and acid. I tend too far toward acid myself.
My biggest gripe with the book – and here be plot spoiler so look away now – relates to my lack of sympathy for Florentino Ariza, the unrequited lover. In my world such a character loses most of his credibility the first time he shags another woman. When he becomes a serial offender, in fact an obsessive, I’ve lost the point of the story altogether.
Oh well, sit back and enjoy the prose.
My American writer friend, Doug, put me on to this English novelist and I first read, and loved, Arcadia.
Continent, Crace’s first book, is different. I don’t think it’s a novel, for a start. It reads like seven short stories. And why did he have to invent a seventh continent as backdrop? I’ve never been to Africa or South America but have read enough from both to visualise them as the perfect settings for this book.
That apart, it is of course a good read and two of the pieces stand out – On Heat in the middle, with a very fine twist, and Electricity as a good example of prefiguring a final scene. A sense of menace suffuses all the stories; perhaps this disturbance casts the reader into Crace’s unknown world, an unknown continent of the imagination.
I’m revisiting this review in time for Bristol Book Club’s Meetup next week. Over two years ago 49p in one of those discount bookshops outside Bideford got me a copy of Mary Shelley’s classic and, to some folk, the first science fiction novel. I could have bought David Copperfield for the same price but felt that Frankenstein would be less challenging for a post-holiday read.
How wrong can you be? I can cope with the wordiness and convoluted sentences of that era, so I didn’t struggle at first. But Victor Frankenstein, he goes on and on about how miserable he is and what tedious company he must be for his friends and family; and when he’s done going on about it, he goes on some more. Well, yeah, you’re tedious to the reader too, buddy. Just get over yourself.
Pages and pages of it. One long, persistent complaint. Don’t we all know people like that? And don’t we all wish we could make our excuses and leave at the earliest opportunity? “Me, me, me, me, me.” They dominate the conversation; they dominate your life. Jesus, I don’t want to read about it as well.
And then that gives them another complaint: “you don’t care about me.” Oh, my God. The fact is: they’re gonna complain about something.
I dropped the book at the point where Frankenstein was about to create Mrs Monster. I was sure that’d turn out badly too.
But first a reminder that this website has a calendar, where events like this are posted, if I know about them. If you know about any, I can set you up to post as well.
So, yesterday a couple of hundred science fiction and fantasy types descended on the Bristol Ramada for a day of panels, signings, art, readings, interviews, up close and personal groups and… books, of course. Way too much to cover here but the programme should still be online. I particularly wanted to catch Alastair Reynolds, Eugene Byrne and Gareth L. Powell‘s launch of The Recollection, which I’ve come away with.
In fact I’ve come away with tons and my book pile now contravenes all Health and Safety regulations (not helped with Middlemarch teetering on the top but that’ll go back tomorrow). Among them is a copy of B. John Shaw Liddle’s Suncaller if anyone fancies reviewing it for the website. I also chatted to Wayne Simmons, author of Flu. Hmm, I’ll probably have to check that against my Let the Time Come. He has more zombies in his though.
Emma Newman was there too and she’s launching an intriguing looking website at Split Worlds. It appears to be for local people but see what you make of it. Big, big hat tip to Jo Hall and team for putting the show together.
I had to leave before the end because of a small matter of the Championship leaders (Southampton in case you didn’t know) playing at Reading. It was hard to find a pub not showing the Liverpool game but BSB at Harbourside obliged and I supped £3.60 pints while, frankly, the second best team nicked a point with only ten men on the field. That’s what champions do.
Champion footballers and champion writers. I’ve pencilled in BristolCon ’12 already.
Well, we done got us a page here with a ratin’n’all. Not a good ratin’ but better’n it was on account of yours truly a-boostin’ it a tad. N’if you got a strong stomach, y’kin read the review that some varmint wrote in all its two-star glory.
Better still, click the Hidden Bristol poster and pur-chase the dang thang.
That’s all from the sheriff of culture, y’all.