Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If there were a contest for the most outrageous one-sentence summary of J.M. Coetzee's "Waiting for the Barbarians", my entry would be "Two main themes of the book are torture and an elderly man's sex life with young women". Although there is some truth in this flippant summary, I will rather be serious: it is really an allegorical novel about how power and fear degenerate people, and about some of the humanity's ugliest, shameful traits. I found this book almost as painful to read as the outstanding "Disgrace", yet the message, despite the allegory, is much more direct in "Waiting for the Barbarians".
The plot takes place in unspecified time in the past, in a town that is a far outpost of the (also unspecified) Empire. The magistrate, who narrates the story, holds judicial and executive powers. One of his main tasks is to keep in check the hordes of barbarian nomads who apparently roam nearby. They do not really do much harm to the Empire at this particular spot, yet the Third Bureau of the Civil Guard from the capital sends officers to the frontier town to take more drastic steps against the barbarians.
The visiting functionaries use the citizens' fear of barbarians to gain more power and use the power to instill more fear among the citizens. They catch barbarians and torture them, some to death. The magistrate, an old man, is a decent human being, yet he befriends a young woman, a victim of torture, and uses his power over her to have her as his servant and a warm, fresh body to worship and sleep with. This is just the beginning of the plot, which moves in unexpected directions, while always staying near the central issues of torture, power, and our (and our bodies') frailty in the face of oppression and physical pain.
I recall some literary critics explaining the novel as a commentary on the racial issues in contemporary South Africa (where Mr. Coetzee was born). I think they are wrong. The book is a commentary on the reasons why the human race will always struggle with racial issues, why we will exploit, torture, and execute THE OTHER people, whom we fear or, more accurately, whom we are taught to fear by people who have power over us.
Despite the ugliness of the subject matter, the book is beautifully written. I do not think that in my 50+ years of heavy reading I have encountered an author who writes better - more economically and with more clarity - than Mr. Coetzee. I am not sure which to praise more: the exquisitely masterful writing or the depth of the messages and the richness of threads. The novel has a poignant thread about a civilization that vanished and left hieroglyphic writings that are impossible to decipher. The quite prominent "erotic thread" makes this a very mature book; I do not think many people younger than middle age will be able to relate to this theme.
I will close this inept but heartfelt review with my favorite quote, which comes from the magistrate: "I should never have allowed the gates of the town to be opened to people who assert that there are higher considerations than those of decency".
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