Use of the word 'barbarians' is unsettling

"...but it's common in villages for Christian people on one side of the river not to talk to those of the same surname on the other side, because they consider them barbarians," Nkoko said.

This line comes out of celebrated poet Mongane Wally Serote's latest book, Revelations.

Barbarians, I have always known, are vermin not to be touched, even with the proverbial barge pole.

I have no objection to Serote's use of the word - it is totally harmless. What I do find objectionable, though, is how "barbarian" is used in books penned by white authors to refer to their black characters.

My name is not Steve Hofmeyr and I harbour no ambition to start a race war. It is just one and a half books that I take umbrage at for their use of the word.

Let's start with the half book, James Clelland's Deeper Than Colour. It's a good book until I get to the chapter Barbarians at the Gate. Clelland writes: "Lock up your goods and chattels, for the barbarians are at the gate..."

If this is poetic licence I do not like it because here the author talks about black children playing noisily with a ball. "This only serves to confirm the white unease at how noisy and dangerous they are.

"The presence of these children forces the (white) mothers to keep an eye on their vehicles, to check that the noisy, smelly hordes are not stealing hubcaps or CD players or, worse still, the whole car, for they steal anything, as everybody knows."

This may be a book of fiction with the character expressing these thoughts a nutcase who is a former apartheid soldier. But clearly, it is Clelland making a point.

His obsession with Constantine Cavafy's Waiting for the Barbarians unsettles me. In the poem, which I find a great work of literary art, the much-awaited barbarians, of whom Cavafy says "they were, those people, a kind of solution", eventually do not show up.

"Because the barbarians are coming today..."

A good poem ruined by writers with a prejudiced agenda of their own. It is the liberties they take with Cavafy's work that irks me.

The half done, consider the book now. JM Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. He took the title of Cavafy's poem to plonk on his novel, published in 1980.

I hear "it was chosen by Penguin for its series Great Books of the 20th Century" and won a few prestigious fiction prizes.Those who have written about the book before insist the namelessEmpire in Coetzee's book is not South Africa.

I cannot read it without "seeing" South Africa in Coetzee's fine prose. I do not see the barbarians he's writing about as anything but die swart gevaar that opened the floodgates of the chicken run Down Under, where Coetzee himself now lives.

The barbarian girl the magistrate brings home cannot be anything but a black South African! Please tell me it is just my imagination running away with me.

In Clelland's book, which is set in South Africa, the narrator is accosted in his house by (black?) robbers. What does he call them? "Fucking barbarians."

Those who gave it the European Literary Award 2010 are obviously not barbarians themselves.

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