Monday, April 27, 2009

Steven, Book Review, *J. M. Coetzee, *Waiting for the Barbarians

My first book for this challenge could be one of the very best. Waiting for the Barbarians is a brief but unforgettable novel about the corrosive effects of power. The setting is a remote fortified frontier settlement on the western fringe of a nameless and imaginary Empire. The narrator is the Magistrate who presides over this peaceful and unassuming community. He is a thoughtful man of mild temperament, enjoying fine foods and an occasional evening with a local prostitute.

The Magistrate's placid life is forever changed by the arrival of Colonel Joll, an agent of the imperial police, with several captives. The prisoners are barbarians, people who live beyond the Empire's western border. To the Magistrate the barbarians have always been a people of interest as potential trading partners, but Joll represents the new official policy that the barbarians are a threat to the Empire and are to be treated as enemies. Joll brutally tortures his captives, and begins insidiously to turn the townspeople towards his view of the barbarians as subhuman beasts whose only desire is to kill and plunder. Eventually the people joyfully take part in the torture of captives, even children taking their turns bludgeoning barbarians in the town square. The Magistrate alone attempts to stop the tortures and the punitive expeditions into the desert. He even takes a captive barbarian girl, now crippled from Joll's abuses, into his house in an attempt to expiate his nation's collective sins.

As one might imagine, Waiting for the Barbarians is a brutal story with graphic descriptions of violence and suffering. It is also a timeless allegory. While the novel may have been inspired by apartheid in Coetzee's native South Africa, one can't avoid disturbing thoughts about America's waterboarding controversy. But Coetzee's message is a more general one. Near the end of the novel the Magistrate reflects upon his inability, not just to live a simple day-to-day live, but even to understand those who do:

"What has made it impossible for us to live in time like fish in water, like birds in air, like children? It is the fault of Empire! Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies.... By night it feeds on images of disaster."

This is very thoughtful stuff. As citizens of a great empire, are we not only trapped in its historical paradigm, but doomed to project that paradigm into our own lives? Is it our birthright to be incapable of enjoying our day-to-day lives, free from conflict and free from the cloud of worry about the future?

5 comments:

moonrat said...

I love, love, love Coetzee (mostly). Have you read others of his? I liked this one a lot, but perhaps liked DISGRACE and THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MICHAEL K even more. they're rather different, though.

Steven Davis said...

Moonrat: Yes, I've read "Disgrace" and "The Master of Petersburg." I thought "Disgrace" was great as well (I'd put it about equal to "Barbarians"). "Master of Petersburg" wasn't as good. (A better novel about Dostoevsky, in my opinion, is "Summer in Baden Baden" by Leonid Tsypkin.)

M. said...

I read Waiting for the Barbarians last spring and loved the hell out of it. Like Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah, it does a great job of pointing out that 1) a colonial government/empire's violence is just as readily used to impose its rule on its own citizens as it is the colonized, and 2) the reputedly inferior, ignorant colonized do not necessarily need the help of self-appointed enlightened, civilized folk from within the hegemony to fight successfully against the rule of said colonial government/empire.

Trixie said...

Most of the mentioned books are on my list TBR. I'm so excited to hear good reviews. Am having trouble getting started...

nlo said...

True, one of the better books of our time. Enjoyed it immensely. Thanks for the review, it was really spot on.