Experiencing J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians
by Chris Switzer
Cellular phones, mud-splattered SUV’s, Cocoa Puffs, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, Pentium IV PC’s, DVD players; these are the luxury items of wealthy, satisfied countries, most notably the spoiled United States. In the U.S., the primary concern of the people is whether or not they will be able to acquire a Playstation 2 for their child’s birthday; the most traumatic experience is being in a minor fender bender or having to put one’s dog or cat to sleep. We have evolved as a culture to the point of moral complacency; risking one’s physical safety or financial security to stand up for one’s principles will never be an issue for most middle-class Americans
For this reason, it is refreshingly disturbing to read J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. It’s the story of a magistrate of a (presumably) South African frontier settlement who witnesses the unspeakable acts of cruelty of visiting Colonel Joll, a man determined to find enemies of the Empire in the desolate lands that surround them. 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.
After the prisoners are released, a barbarian girl is left behind, begging in the streets, temporarily blinded and crippled from the torture inflicted upon her. The Magistrate befriends her and eventually invites her to sleep in his room. The relationship, however, is not on based on sexuality but one of a deeper physic, emotional need. They both partake in a strangely relaxing cleansing ritual where the Magistrate washes the girl’s body, perhaps as a symbolic way of washing his hands of the terrible deeds of Colonel Joll. After the girl’s eyesight returns and she regains some use of her feet, the Magistrate decides to return the girl to her people. Following a grueling journey that takes several weeks to complete, the reception the Magistrate receives when he returns to the settlement is not what he expected. Charged with treason by Colonel Joll, the Magistrate is thrown into prison.
It’s stories like this that make one wonder if some acts of courage and heroism are not necessarily by choice. The scenes of devilishly devised “interrogations” that occur to the prisoners and eventually to the Magistrate himself are described with a strange mixture of detail and detachment, enough to cause the reader to cringe. What occurs later in the novel, however, is what truly exposes the horror of the Empire, and brings one to the unpleasant realization that there are things far worse than physical torture.
Despite its gritty subject matter, however, Waiting for the Barbarians is a story first and foremost about love and unspoken forgiveness. 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. As the professor David Lurie (in Disgrace) steadfastly refuses to issue a formal apology for his sexual liaison with a student, the Magistrate refuses to admit to any wrongdoing against the Empire. Indeed, even as he is tortured and humiliated, he chooses on more than one occasion to return to prison and repeatedly insists on having a trial to prove his innocence. The Magistrate and David Lurie are two rare breeds in today’s species; both revoke financial, physical and emotional security in the name of their own principles.
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. At the same time, the underlying theme seems to be almost Buddhist in nature; despite the shortcomings and misunderstandings of some, we should accept people for who they are, without requesting them to change. Strangely enough, this tenant applies also to the most blatant wrongdoers.
You won’t see the birth of a one-man cavalry in a Coetzee novel, guns blazing, exacting revenge on the torturous regime of the Empire. You will, however, see a man willing to suffer for what he believes in. The Magistrate may be the second coming of Christ, or he may be merely a fool. Regardless, his actions give the reader something to think about: at what point should we stop looking in the other direction and risk our lives to take action ourselves? Will such actions be futile, or will a change for the greater good be established? An art teacher once told me, “What matters is not the end result but how you get there.” This principle applies to every aspect of life, and this story is no exception. Early in the novel, it’s apparent who the “barbarians” really are, that’s no surprise. What is a surprise, however, is the compassion Coetzee shows his victims and villains alike. While Waiting for the Barbarians may cause some readers to wince at times, the journey experienced and lessons learned are well worth it.