For two weeks now, J.M. Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians” has weighted me down like the mariner’s albatross. Once in a long while I come across a book that seems to perfectly encapsulate the realities, both joyous and painful, of the human condition. The last such book was Denis Johnson‘s Jesus’ Son, and maybe it’s no coincidence the both were short, mostly allegorical novels, which allow the reader to fell more a part of the central character than other novels. The fact that Coetzee has presented a novel which can be read in a single sitting does not pass unnoticed – I’ve always been a believer in Poe’s philosophy that a great novel must be readable in a single sitting in order for a person to fully appreciate the experience.
Waiting for the Barbarians follows an aging magistrate who for the past few decades has been managing one of the furthest outposts of an unnamed Empire during a period of peace. He comes from a prominent family though he doesn’t seem to aspire to any greatness of his own and is content living out his life on the frontier. He is slightly obsessed with history and in his spare time excavates an ancient barbarian village on the shore of a lake. From this hobby, he has obtained one of his prized possessions, a sack stuffed with old wooden tablets covered in barbarian writing he has no ability to decipher. History is possibly the most common theme in the book, and, in particular, the recognition of the existence of history and one’s place in it is a lesson the magistrate must grow to understand himself as well as how it applies to the Empire’s actions towards the barbarians.
The main plot centers on the visit of Colonel Jol, a dedicated servant of the Empire, who will unquestioningly follow orders to root out any perceived threats, and the response of the magistrate to the colonel’s torturous actions perpetrated on the barbarians. After a short reconnaissance of the barbarian lands by the colonel, and the capture of fisher folk, he begins to question the prisoners about barbarian plans for an attack on the Empire. The magistrate knows that he must not interfere with the colonel, but he opens Pandora’s Box by looking in on the victims after a day of the Colonel’s work.
The images of the tortured barbarians haunts him throughout the rest of the novel, and it directly leads to him taking in a blind barbarian girl who has had her ankles broken during the questioning. This central action is truly the crux of the story and Coetzee brilliantly gives the reader three different interpretations to draw from it.
First is the Magistrate who constantly questions himself as to why he’s taking in the girl who is broken and disfigured. He spends his time meticulously washing her feet and then her body, a great metaphor for the cleansing of his own soul he hopes to obtain by helping this girl. Then there is the confusion of the girl, who herself cannot understand the actions of the magistrate, particularly that he doesn’t seek her for sexual pleasure. In no way does his cleaning her and taking care of her make her see him any differently than a Magistrate of the Empire, and in the end she is dumbfounded when he asks her to stay with him rather than go back to her people – she would never have even considered staying. Finally there is Colonel Jol, who, rightly so from his perspective, views the Magistrate’s actions as going native and conspiring against the empire.
There is a line early in the book where the Magistrate thinks to himself, “I believe in peace, perhaps even peace at any price.” Coetzee give us that price, but, unlike the brutality of the Empire which we expect, it is the peace the Magistrate must gain through his downfall, torture, and final poverty which permeate the later pages of the book. In a way, I was reminded of Kafka’s The Trial in how it almost seemed as if I were the one being punished, as if I were the one who, though guilty in the eyes of the Empire, must cleanse myself and prove my innocence the through suffering.
The Magistrate later understands that the truly awful thing the Empire has done to the Barbarians is not to go off and kill them and take their land, but to impose history upon them:
“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.”
By forcing the barbarians to recognize and live in a world with history, the Empire has taken from them their normal cycle of existence, taken their culture and way of life. The Empire has given them an unrecognizable future, past, and present. And this crime against the barbarians haunts the Magistrate even more than the tortures of Colonel Jol, more than the broken girl who he gave back to the barbarians, and more than his own torture by the agents of the Empire.
Understanding all of this, the Magistrate can once again take up his leadership position, but only because he steps out of history and simply begins to exist in the now, to live to see what comes in the future. Finally cleansed, the Magistrate can wait for the barbarians to come.
I can’t imagine an existence where I wasn’t aware of history, but the idea of existing to exist without our other preoccupations, which invariably lead to more stress than they’re worth, is definitely attractive. But because we live in such a world, history has demonstrated that most people lack the cultural sensitivity to approach a completely different society and not think themselves superior. Over and over we’ve seen that cycle, and now our planet is left with so few uncorrupted cultures that a book like this may never be written again.