Friday, 10 April 2009

Waiting for the Barbarians - J.M. Coetzee

Read: April 2008

“‘When some men suffer unjustly,’ I said to myself, ‘it is the fate of those who witness their suffering to suffer the shame of it.”

Set in the harsh, desolate frontier lands of a nameless Empire in a timeless age, Waiting for the Barbarians is a sparse, allegorical novel, devastatingly powerful in its depiction of one mans complicity in barbaric acts of so called ‘civilisation’.

For years the Magistrate has presided over the affairs of a small, peaceful frontier fort, collecting rents, settling petty disputes, and excavating the ruins of fallen towns, unconcerned about rumours of an impending war with the Barbarians. But when interrogators from the shadowy Third Bureau arrive it seems they are intent on turning his peaceful harmony into a raging battlefield. Following a case of barbaric torture, the Magistrate is jolted from his comfortable complicity into an act of quixotic rebellion for which he is imprisoned under charges of treason and he begins to learn just how lonely being a martyr can be.

Waiting for the Barbarians
sees Coetzee tackling big issues: complacency and complicity in the face of barbarism, the boundary between freedom and incarceration, and the devastation war inflicts on both our psyches and ways of life. It is too easy to say it is an allegory for apartheid in South Africa - though undoubtedly it is – for Coetzee’s real success is in expanding theses small particulars, to a general treatise on human nature.

Many writers have meditated on the collision between conscientious individuals and harsh, repressive regimes. Kafka did it in The Trial, Camus in The Outsider, Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huzley in Brave New World, and the list goes on and on. If there is a twentieth century literary concern this is probably it. But Coetzee takes it that stage further than others, to analyse the complicity of the Magistrate himself, to question the arrogance of one man standing righteous against the tide of popular opinion, the pointlessness of it all. Coetzee doesn’t merely make his Magistrate a victim of the bureaucracy, but he is complicit within it, and knows even as he fights back that he is just doing so to cleanse his own narcissistic guilt. He is by no means a shining white night of freedom but a flawed person just trying to live his life in his own way.

Furthermore, the sense of place Coetzee creates is exquisite: the vast, empty wilderness a bleak uncompromising landscape looming ominously over the entire novel. The nomadic austerity of life in that wasteland strikes a chord with the barren emotional prospects of its central character. It is evocative of Doris Lessing’s Mara and Dan, an untamed world, shorn of romantic connotations, a greater threat to the lives of man than ever the Barbarians could be.

You don’t read Coetzee to enjoy a stroll through the park, you read Coetzee because, perhaps more than any other modern novelist, he knows what it is to be human, and he is able to convey it all so simply, in so few words that it leaves you stumped. You shake your head regularly, unsure whether you love or hate the characters, uncertain how such stripped down life can be portrayed so beautifully. Because above all else, Coetzee is a beautiful writer, his prose flows from pen to paper to reader invisibly, reads so smoothly you barely realise what an accomplishment it is. And he presents his situations starkly, vividly, but with an equanimity and reluctance that leaves you devastated. The scarcity of the prose, the barren landscape of possibility, the simple power of his storytelling, each of these is exquisite.

This is a very, very great novel. And despite everything it carries no message, save perhaps a call for recalcitrance in the face of force. As the Magistrate says, before any of the tragic events take place,

“I believe in peace, perhaps even peace at any price.”

You know what? I think I agree with him.

8.5 out of 10

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