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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.2 (2001) 391-420

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J. M. Coetzee and the Question of the Body

Brian May

Her history is a thing about which Coetzee's "barbarian girl" (38) does not talk, and once we get past the ankles, which register "traces of a history her body bears" (Waiting 64)--"large, puffy, shapeless, the skin scarred purple" (29)--the body, too, tells nothing. Apparently "unmarked" by history (33), the body of the barbarian girl seems "featureless" (47). At least, its features are not distinguishing, however definite its articles: "the clear jaw, the high cheekbones, the wide mouth" (42), the "broad [feet], the toes stubby, the nails crusty with dirt, [. . .] the firm-fleshed calves" (28), "[h]er legs [. . .] short and sturdy, her calves strong" (30). And so they, and she, remain: discrete precipitates of history that seem to lie outside history. A history she clearly has, and even its latest events are as numerous and piecemeal as her features. Whatever befell her prior to her encounter with The Empire, 1 since then she has been tortured and maimed by its agents, abandoned by its enemies, her fellow nomads, and exploited by a man who is both its agent and its enemy, a guilt-ridden imperial Magistrate who has tried to decipher her, "obliterate" her (47), remember her, become her comrade, "make reparation" (81), and return her to her people. Yet, to all appearances, Coetzee's barbarian girl leaves Waiting for the Barbarians just as she enters it, devoid of discernible history, not just anonymous, but anonymously piecemeal, a mere list of body parts, attitudes, and gestures that might belong to any [End Page 391] "stocky girl with a broad mouth and hair cut in a fringe across her forehead staring over [his] shoulder" (73).

The failure of the girl's body to signify a history, either personal or imperial, itself signifies sharply, pointing to three significant issues in Coetzee's fiction: first, the question of history, namely its resistance to recovery even when "traces" (64) persist; second, the question of Empire--its will to truth, for example; and finally, the question of the body--its "miraculous" power of self-"repair" (107), which erases even such traces as the "insignia of power" constituting "emblem[s] of the regime's strength" (Scarry 56), thus frustrating both imperial and revisionist history. In what follows I bring the third and relatively unexplored topic, the question of the body, into the foreground. Coetzee himself invites this move when he speaks of "the body and its undeniable life" (qtd in Wood 186), even its "undeniable [. . .] power," asserting that "Whatever else, the body is not 'that which is not'" ("Autobiography" 248).

Coetzee's characterization of the body as not that which is not suggests that we distinguish the question of what it is from that of whether it is, and the latter question is the easier one. All we have to do is scrutinize moments in which the body appears to have--but truly has not--disappeared. For example, in Waiting for the Barbarians the Magistrate's failing to catch "the whole woman" (64) in "his net[s] of meaning" (81) does not signify that she has disappeared. Her body disintegrates but remains, even obtrudes upon the Magistrate's consciousness, and it is not that there is nothing to catch, it is that his "nets" cannot catch it. Indeed, the body persists even when the atemporal discreteness of the colonial invades the sphere of the imperial--when, that is, the Magistrate suddenly cannot make sense of any "human form" (no longer does he see "a flower radiating out from a kernel in the loins" [34]), even his own, which also fragments into a series of discrete parts that he details as "my thin shanks, my slack genitals, my paunch, my flabby old man's breasts, the turkey skin of my throat" (31). The body continues to persist even when this shared discreteness of imperial and colonial bodies itself dissolves, both bodies turning "diffuse, gaseous, centreless, at one moment spinning about a vortex here, at another...


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