Sunday, August 12, 2007

Waiting for the Barbarians, by J.M. Coetzee & How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, by Julia Álvarez

Waiting for the Barbarians J.M. CoetzeeWell, these would have been very good books to write about, but I now forget virtually all of what I was thinking while reading them, as an intervening week of a Vicodin and strawberry milkshakes diet obliterated what few scattered ideas I had. I do recall thinking what an interesting pair these two novels make, standing in a very odd relationship to one another which becomes stranger the more one tries to compare and contrast them.

To begin with, I feel there is a problem with the typology I selected for this post's label—postcolonial fiction. Certainly Coetzee's novel is a stalwart exemplar of the idea that most scholars have in mind when they talk or write about postcolonial literature. The novel quite directly confronts the horrible heritage of imperial brutality, the complex dance of and with otherness that occurs at the border of "barbarity," and the auto-estranging nature of "civilization." But Álvarez's novel, while by no means ignorant of or indifferent to these ideas, nevertheless seems to be standing at an oblique angle to the keel of the postcolonial ship, slipping into and under more pressing concerns of burgeoning adolescent identity to such an extent that I find it rather constricting to bag the García Girls into such an academic category.

However, the secondary or tertiary importance of immigrant/postcolonial identity next to adolescent and female identity is not a mark of innocence, or rather of a very particular type of innocence. For when it does intersect with postcolonial issues, Álvarez's novel deals with them summarily, a fact manifested quite graphically by the sketch of a family tree at the beginning of the book which trumpets without comment the Garcías' descent from the conquistadors. I say that with no intent to frame an objection but rather to indicate a point of curiosity. While there is nothing like a blindness to issues of class and race between the García family and their poorer and blacker servants, there is also nothing resembling a serious confrontation or point of genuine unease while staring at the crudity of these differences. Coetzee's novel is nothing but a string of such points, an entire narrative locked on or in the same horrified gaze.

My intent is not to say that Coetzee's novel is better in its exploration of postcolonial themes or problems; that's a rather stupid thing to say if one considers that Álvarez was not and need not be cornered into writing novels which participate in such a project. Nor is my intent to compare the ethical positions of the novels, to weigh the unabashed snobbery of the García girls against the self-lacerations of Coetzee's magistrate narrator. I would say that reading these two novels together makes me a great deal warier of glib judgments like those when reading postcolonial fiction and its attendant theorists. I have, unfortunately, only minimal exposure to postcolonialism in its literary and critical forms but judging by what I have experienced, I find evidence of terminal glibness both in its defenders and critics. (E.g. Two reviews/essays from last year about a book attacking Edward Said for lackluster scholarship while making his arguments about orientalism—1, 2) I would do well to take note, I imagine, and avoid such posturing.

Disregarding politics for a moment, both books—Álvarez and Coetzee—are absolutely thrilling to read.

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