I brought some cookies and wore my cheerful snowman socks. Someone else brought wine and we ordered pizza — one of the major comfort foods. All this by way of explaining that my reading group recently met on a frosty winter’s eve to discuss a scorching novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, by Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee.
Here’s how Bernard Levin of London’s The Sunday Times described this tale in a review: “I have known few authors who can provoke such a wilderness in the heart of man….Mr. Coetzee knows the elusive terror of Kafka.” Not exactly beach reading, one writing buddy quipped. She wasn’t kidding.
Still, the book is haunting and mesmerizing — and beautifully written, so much so, that its lyrical style serves as a powerful counterpoint to the violent, threatening world it conjures up. Craft-wise, we found much to admire and emulate. One intrepid member of our crew, David Popiel, gave the book a very close, insightful reading and found it especially compelling because of its:
Richly layered structure that doesn’t seem mechanistic but organic.
Interesting characters, who fascinate because they are deeply flawed and struggling.
Effective, seamless narrative techniques:
• a recurring dream that changes throughout the book
• repeated references to a distant, menacing capital
• a narrator who frequently questions his own motives, which
reinforces ambiguity and adds to the story’s complexity
* the repetition of words and structures to create rhythmic propulsion
• the ability to discuss moral issues without moralizing
• the ability to artfully combine description, character portrayal,
and judgment: “Pain is truth; all else is subject to doubt.
That is what I bear away from my conversation with
Colonel Joll, whom with his tapering fingernails, his mauve
handkerchiefs, his slender feet in soft shoes I keep imagining
back in the capital he is so obviously impatient for, murmuring
to his friends in theatre corridors between the acts.”
There’s so much to be learned from analyzing accomplished authors! Write on.