Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Book Review: 'Waiting for the Barbarians' by J. M. Coetzee

J. M. Coetzee (1940- )
Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)

152 pages

The aging Magistrate of a small outpost on a distant frontier of an empire, looking only to close out the last few years of his capable but undistinguished service in peaceful ease, has his view of the world and his very life turned upside down by the sudden arrival from the capital of a high ranking internal security official, Colonel Joll.

The government has declared a state of emergency, based on reports of increased attacks from barbarians living beyond the frontier. The Magistrate observes that "once in every generation, without fail, there is an episode of hysteria about the barbarians," and he fears the impact this new situation will have on his quiet, frontier life. The Magistrate watches Colonel Joll capture, interrogate and torture simple nomads, who have for years lived in relative peace with the citizens of the outpost --- sometimes stealing food, but never violent. The Colonel tries to tie these nomads to the barbarian hordes reported to be massing to attack the empire. Unable to look away or go along, the Magistrate gradually, and, he reflects, uncharacteristically, begins countering the violence of the Colonel in particular, and the aggressive policies of the empire in general, with consequences he only too late recognizes, and for reasons that he struggles within himself to understand.

The place and time of the novel are ambiguous. When his official duties are done, the Magistrate has as a hobby excavating giant buildings buried in sand dunes near the outpost, buildings that are of an unknown past; even "the barbarians ... make no reference in their legends to a permanent settlement" in the area. The Magistrate finds pieces of wood with unknown symbols on them among the ruins, that he tries unsuccessfully to decipher. The book has the feel of a post-apocalyptic world of the far future, as civilization slowly rebuilds itself.

But, ultimately, the time and place of the story are not really critical, as Coetzee describes a civilization that may be in our far past or far future, but which has characteristics of today's world powers: an elite political class exploiting fear of the 'other' to stay in power, a security service that is as focused on internal dissent to the empire's political orthodoxy as it is to external military threats, and a large mass of common citizens going along with the status quo hoping to be left to their quiet lives. In the behavior of the empire in the novel, it's hard not see parallels between its use fear-mongering over supposedly imminent barbarian attacks, and, for example, the use in recent years of increases in the US terror alert level as a cynical, political tactic. And, in the character of the Magistrate, Coetzee expresses the struggles of an everyday citizen who decides to push back against policies of the state they find morally wrong.

The gradual, but evolving resistance of the Magistrate to the activities of Colonel Joll are in fact at the center of the novel. His internal confusion grows, as he drifts into his opposition of particular tactics of the empire. He imagines the state, in the form of Colonel Joll, will agree with his view of how the situation with the barbarians must be handled once he explains himself clearly, only to stumble to the realization that he is losing the trust of his superiors. As he discovers himself becoming ostracized by the visiting Colonel, he expects his neighbors to rally to his defense --- so obvious is the validity of his arguments --- only to find himself ridiculed by a crowd so completely convinced of the righteousness of the state that the Colonel in the end must do next to nothing to turn the townspeople against him. As his setbacks mount, the Magistrate begins to question his own motivations for entering the fight; the clear and pure moral certainty he feels early on dissolves as he wonders if he is actually acting more out of pride and stubbornness.

Ultimately there are no heroes in Coetzee's novel, no easy answers, which is what makes it such a fascinating examination of the complexity of taking a stand against a policy with which one has a deep, moral disagreement; the complexity both in one's interaction with the political regime and fellow citizens, as well as in one's internal understanding of the motivations for acting and the lengths one is willing to go to fight back.

I've read that the following poem of Constantine Cavafy, from around 1900, served as
an inspiration for the novel; it certainly carries a similar message.

Waiting for the Barbarians

-What are we doing gathered in the bazaar, and waiting?
The barbarians are supposed to get here today.
-Why are things so dead inside the Senate?
How can the senators just sit there, making no laws?
Because the barbarians will get here today.
What laws should the Senate pass at this point?
The barbarians, when they come, will be making all the laws.
-Why did our emperor rise so early in the morning,
and why is he sitting in the city's grandest gate
on the throne, ceremonial, wearing the crown?
Because the barbarians will get here today.
And the emperor expects to receive
their commander. In fact, he has prepared
a parchment as a gift. There he's written him
many titles and great names.
-Why, today, have our two consuls and our praetors
appeared in their red, embroidered togas;
why did they wear bracelets of so many amethysts,
and rings with gleaming, polished emeralds;
why, today, should they take up those precious canes
with exquisite carving in silver and gold?
Because the barbarians will get here today;
and such things dazzle barbarians.
-And why don't our accomplished orators come out,
as they always do, to make their speeches, and have their say?
Because the barbarians will get here today;
and that kind get bored with bombastic speeches.
-Why has this trouble broken out just now,
and panic? (Faces have gone so solemn.)
Why are the streets, the squares emptying so fast,
and all the people brooding as they turn back home?
Because night has come and the barbarians have not.
And a few people have come back from the outskirts,
and said no more barbarians exist.
So now what will become of us, without barbarians.
These men were one sort of resolution.
Before Time Could Change Them:
The Complete Poems of Constantine P. Cavafy

translated by Theoharis C. Theoharis

Other reviews / information:
by Chris Switzer at turtleneck.com

on the Blog Integral Psychosis

at Literitude: Literature Review

I have also reviewed Coetzee's novel Disgrace.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

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