Articulating a Literary Space: J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians as World Literature

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Abstract

In an interview with Tony Morphet, South African writer J. M. Coetzee questioned the relationship between critical discourse and the positioning of a writer within a national space. Indeed, critics have insisted upon reading Coetzee’s work as an allegory for apartheid South Africa (Ann Waldron Neumann) and a historical narrative for the colonization of Africa (David Attwell). Other critics, such as Derek Attridge and T. Kai Easton, have acknowledged the tension that such nationalistic readings develop between Coetzee’s work and his professed global purposes. This tension between critical categories and the writer’s self-professed aims mirrors the theoretical debate between post-coloniality and globalization. Pascale Casanova has redefined this conceptualization by detailing the development of “literary capital” and outlining the struggle of minor literatures by stating that writers working within these spaces are forced either to assimilate themselves “within a dominant literary space” or else differentiate themselves “on the basis of a claim to national identity.” Yet whereas Casanova traces the effects that these restrictions have upon the development of literature within minor literary spaces, Coetzee uses his novel Waiting for the Barbarians to exploit the tension between differentiation and assimilation in order to posit an alternative model for the position and circulation of literature within a global community of writers. In doing so, Coetzee references and rewrites works of the Western canon, thereby deconstructing the center-periphery model governing the global-national discourse. Focusing upon Waiting for the Barbarians, this paper explores intertextuality and the circulation of texts within world literature.