Waiting for the barbarians
“These dreams are the consequence of too much ease. Show me a barbarian army and I will believe“
Mr. Coetzee, we meet again! 😀 Unfortunately, I’m still totally ambivalent towards you: on one hand you bore me and I can only read a few pages at a time, on the other hand…you write too damn good to just stop! Quite the predicament 😛 I’m not giving up, I’m still gonna read Disgrace and The life and times of Michael K (that warped part of my brain that’s in charge of free associations sends good vibes about this title) and yet I can’t even say if Waiting for the barbarians was a disappointment or not. It’s intriguing, I can say as much…
I have been waiting for a glint of inspiration to write a post about this book. But, just like waiting for the said barbarians, it seems futile by now. Unnamed magistrate of an unnamed border town in an unnamed Empire – that is our character and narrator. He goes from being a much respected official, with a great deal of clout, to becoming a prisoner in his own barracks and to regaining some of his previous status, all within a year. It starts with the arrival of col. Joll, a member of the Third Bureau (in charge with security, as it seems) and his announcing that the barbarians will become a threat soon enough. The Magistrate’s 30 year experience in the seasonal trade between barbarians and locals and his insistence that they are merely harmless nomads doesn’t earn him any credit with the officer who, without hesitating, brings in the first prisoners. This is where his part unravels: at first, the Magistrate resigns to being a simple bystander and tries to avoid thinking about the torture, the pain and the injustice that is happening right under his watch. Then the soldiers leave, the prisoners are released and return to their previous life, but a woman is left behind. The Magistrate finds her begging on the streets and takes her in – beginning a very ambiguous relationship with her.
He is moved by the clear signs of pain encrusted on her entire body; to him, she might even be a symbol of the whole wronged population and his care towards her is just an attempt at atonement which culminates with the decision to take her back to her people. The hardships of the journey in the unknown and the subsequent return are nothing compared to what awaits when he reaches his town: the army is back, with news of a possible barbarian invasion and the Magistrate is charged with treason against the Empire and locked in the same barracks where the barbarians were once held.
In the course of a few months he is gradually robbed of all traces of dignity, he endures pains he never expected he could and he learns what clinging on to life really means. As he puts it, “they came to my cell to show me the meaning of humanity, and in the space of an hour they showed me a great deal”. And this humanity has nothing noble or heroic, it is, in fact, more animal than human, more instinct than reason – it is the lowest of lows to which both torturer and tortured stoop.
After a failed campaign, the army retreats and, slowly, life resumes its initial course – the Magistrate regains his old standing while the town prepares for a long hard winter with the prospect of the barbarians’ descent still looming upon them.
The rule of force and fear – this universalized Empire, probably breaking at the seams, tries to endure using the oldest trick in the book: fear makes people obedient, fear breaks spirits, fear asks no questions. “What has made it impossible for us to live in time like fish in water, like birds in the 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.” Nothing else remains and the Magistrate – the one conscience who refuses the absolute dominance of fear is subdued by force. One way or another, the Empire will have its way.
There is no particular time in this novel, yet the Empire is a permanent instance, a symbol of all empires, just like col. Joll and the Magistrate are symbols of two divergent kinds of politics: force (”Pain is truth; all else is subject to doubt“) or justice and reason (“The crime that is latent in us we must inflict on ourselves“). And while some might look onto this lack of space-time determination as a weakness (seeing as how it doesn’t showcase the trials of a particular nation and it is rather abstract), others see it as a strength – and I go with the last bunch. You can place it anytime, anyplace and it’ll still be veracious – in whole, or in part, as the case may be; it still works 28 years after it’s been written and it’ll still work in 100 years. And that’s something I can rarely tell about contemporary literature 😉