The Gorgon’s Head: On Narration, Torture and Truth-Seeking in J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians and in the South African TNC’s History-Writing and Restorative Undertaking

Susanna Zinato


The article retrospectively considers the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s main assumptions and procedures concerning truth-seeking, narration and, by implication, healing, forgiveness and reconciliation, in the problematizing light that J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) can shed upon them. The narrative choices made by Coetzee to tackle in ethically acceptable ways torture and, broadly, any inhuman authoritarian violence on the powerless victim’s body are discussed by drawing on the arguments advanced in his essay “Into the Dark Chamber: The Writer and the South African State” (1986) and in the chapter “The Problem of Evil” of his novel Elizabeth Costello (2003). Zinato comparatively ponders on the ‘hermeneutic’ approaches respectively employed in their truth-seeking practices by a) Coetzee’s ethically-oriented fiction, b) the perpetrator’s inquisitorial torture procedures authorized by state terrorism (represented in the novel by Joll and Mandel), and c) the TRC’s rules of procedure espoused in their courageous, unprecedented undertaking. In doing so, she necessarily passes through crucial issues investing the novel as much as the TRC’s “staging” and recording/filing of the hearings: the relationship between torture/violence and language/narration (directly involving the novelist’s responsible representation), the questioning of the healing power of post-traumatic story-telling, and of forgiveness.


Coetzee; Torture; Post-colonial literature

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