JM Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians
Until now I only read Coetzee’s later works like Disgrace, Slow Man, Diary of a Bad Year. I started reading this earlier novel, strangely enough, because in a poetry anthology I recently bought, I came upon the poem by C.P. Cavafy Waiting for the Barbarians. And this made me think that this poem may have been the inspiration for the title of this novel. Without doubt, if you compare the poem and the novel. Certainly the last lines are meaningful:
Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?
Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.
And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.
A kind of solution? Of course, providing the external (and vague) enemy to hide problems at home. Like in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The setting is a small frontier settlement of an Empire. Time and place do not matter. For some reason the Empire becomes afraid of an impending raid by the barbarians. A colonel of a special branche of police is sent to the settlement to make enquiries. The local Magistrate, the narrator, is apprehensive at first (there have never been disturbances by ‘barbarians’), but feels more and more repugnance towards the methods used by this interrogation specialist.
Eventually he makes his own statement and becomes an ‘enemy’ of the Empire.
I quote Nadine Gordimer from the back cover:
J.M. Coetzee’s vision goes to the nerve-centre of being. What he finds there is more than most people will ever know about themselves, and he conveys it with a brilliant writer’s mastery of tension and elegance.
And sensitivity. Coetzee unravels our feelings. The horror of torture, but also the fascination. The barbarians are inside ourselves. Coetzee’s way of seeing human beings is very much like Raimond Gaita’s in The Philosopher’s Dog.
At one point the magistrate asks one of the torturers:
Forgive me if the question seems impudent, but I would like to ask: How do you find it possible to eat afterwards, after you have been… working with people? That is a question I have always asked myself about executioners and other such people. Wait! Listen to me a moment longer, I am sincere, it has cost me a great deal to come out with this, since I am terrified of you, I need not tell you that, I am sure you are aware of it. Do you find it easy to take food afterwards? I have imagined that one would want to wash one’s hands. But no ordinary washing would be enough, one would require priestly intervention, a ceremonial of cleansing, don’t you think? Some kind of purging of one’s soul too — that is how I have imagined it. Otherwise how would it be possible to return to everyday life — to sit down at table, for instance, and break bread with one’s family or one’s comrades?
More by JM Coetzee.