Thursday, May 20, 2010

351. Waiting for the Barbarians – J.M. Coetzee

History: This book was published in 1980. Coetzee is generally considered to be a postcolonial and postmodern writer who utilizes the nameless empire as an allegory. The magistrate is a figure searching for meaning on the outskirts of an unjust, cruel empire. His love for the barbarian girl is at once paternalistic, fetishistic and misguided. Ultimately, the magistrate learns he is too entrenched within his imperial breeding to make sense of the frontier (the plight of his own people and the barbarians).
Plot: A magistrate in charge of administering the law in a colonial town witnesses the torture of the invaded indigenous population. The colony or the place is unspecified. Most characters have no names, although the circumstances surrounding the events indicate that the colony is South Africa while the barbarians indicate the black population. The magistrate is of unspecified age although he refers to himself as approaching retirement. At first loyal and dutiful the magistrate becomes skeptical about the legal system he represents. He questions its effectiveness, but if he were to leave his successor could be more ruthless.
His rather peaceful existence on the frontier comes to an end with the arrival of some special forces of the Empire, led by a sinister Colonel Joll. There are rumours that the barbarians are preparing an attack on the Empire, and so Colonel Joll and his men conduct an expedition into the land beyond the frontier.
The magistrate is content with his life until the investigation to examine the alleged barbarian uprising occurs. Colonel Joll is sent to establish the extent of danger that the barbarians, who live behind the border may pose to the colony......
They capture a number of "barbarians," bring them back to town, torture them, kill some of them, and leave for the capital in order to prepare a larger campaign against the barbarians.
The Magistrate looks the other way while Colonel Joll interrogates the prisoners, assuming that the acts of the Empire, while excessive in force, are necessary for the security of the people. When the Colonel fills the settlement compound with vagrants as prisoners, the Magistrate finds it increasingly difficult to hold his tongue. He unwittingly reveals his true feelings to the Colonel. However, it is not this subtle insubordination that leads to his political demise, but his sincere relationship with a barbarian girl that causes him to become the new object of the Empire�s suspicion. The Magistrate becomes involved with a "barbarian girl" who was left behind crippled and semi-blinded by the torturers. They become lovers. Eventually, he decides to take her back to her people. After a life-threatening trip through the barren land he succeeds in his objective and returns to his town. Shortly thereafter, the Empire's forces return and the Magistrate's own plight begins. Malicious acts of torture are then administered to the imprisoned magistrate including binding and hanging from the wrists. He also gets punched in the chest. He witnesses horrible acts of violence on the barbarians captured, which are, in turn, committing acts of retaliation as well. Eventually, the magistrate is released, but only becomes a useless citizen, somewhat damaged, until the town is closed by the barbarians.
Review: The imagery, archetypes and situations which Coetzee uses to form his allegory are fairly obvious : the Empire stands for Afrikaner-ruled South Africa; the barbarians are the blacks of South Africa; the Magistrate, as evidenced by the ritual ablutions he performs, his time in the desert and his near crucifixion, is a Christ figure; and the Empire's officials, as evident in the final passage above, are as much prisoners of the repressive system of laws as are the barbarians. There are no evil monsters in a Coetzee novel, there are only humans who think, feel, and act irrationally, sometimes out of confusion, sometimes out of insecurity. The Magistrate, a man past his prime who seeks the sexual bliss of young women, is similar to the flawed David Lurie in Coetzee�s more recent novel, Disgrace. Neither makes apologies for what they have done or who they are, nor do they try to persuade their harshest critics that they should be given leniency.
By contrast, Colonel Joll and his sadistic henchman, Mandel, seem like devils incarnate, but they are only children, playground bullies with authority gone amok, afraid and insecure. Despite their horrible acts against the human species, the Magistrate sees in them only confusion, terror, an inability to understand.
Coetzee displays such masterful control of the medium that we never view any of the characters as caricatures. Underneath the harrowing description is a distinct compassion, which seeps through to every layer of the novel.
Opening Line: “I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire.”
Closing Line: “Like much else nowadays I leave it feeling stupid, like a mana who lost his way long ago but presses on along a road that may lead nowhere.”
Quotes: “I did not mean to get embroiled in this. I am a country magistrate, a responsible official in the service of the Empire, serving out my days on this lazy frontier, waiting to retire. “
Rating: Good, but very very violent and gruesome.

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