I’m always skipping around, so it’s normal to find my reading of an early Coetzee work after I started exploring this two-time Booker winner’s vast and rich literary landscape. The cover picture (left) of this 1980 novel shows a more chiseled, dapper author than the one of later photos (right), but he appears to have aged rather well. Such fashion statements, however, make unworthy commentary for a discussion of this pillar of modern English literature.
Gun to my head, I’d have to name Coetzee as the greatest current practitioner of English prose. There’s certainly no one writing in America who can touch him, and I’d personally put him above both Ishiguro and McEwen. Maybe not Unser. I fault him only for his lack of humor. He seldom displays a light touch, but the rest of his work is so profound that chuckles would be a little like laughing out loud in church.
Waiting for the Barbarians is set at a nameless frontier outpost of a nameless empire. The narrator, identified only as The Magistrate, is a man of late middle years who is responsible for dispensing justice and keeping order in the small community. He has plenty of leisure to indulge his propensities for good food, classics, prostitutes, and archeology. He looks forward to living out his career as a comfortable bureaucrat well below the radar of the far-off rulers.
Into this tranquil setup comes an expedition from Empire Central, “the capital,” on mounting a military campaign to subdue the titular Barbarians–a nomadic people of the surrounding plains and mountains. The magistrate does all he can to accommodate the invaders, reasoning that they will soon exhaust their curiosity, then leave him alone as they have in the past. This time it doesn’t work out that way.
The new commander is intent on wiping out the barbarians with whom the Magistrate has established a live-and-let-live relationship. True, he has been complicit in occupying their previous lands beside the region’s large lake, but there’s relative calm now among the outpost, the nomads, and the primitive fisher folk who live on the lake’s shores. Now, however, his sense of justice and right is tested to the utmost. There are prisoners and torture. He must stand up to the military (how can he?) and he must stand up for them (how can he?) He desperately wants to think of himself as humane, but he cannot blink the fact that he has been an instrument of oppression:
I know somewhat too much; and from this knowledge, once one has been infected, there seems to be no recovering. I ought never to have taken my lantern to see what was going on in that hut by the granary. On the other hand, there was no way, once I had picked up the lantern, for me to put it down again. The knot loops in upon itself. I cannot find the end.
During a lull in the action, while the military is out of the settlement, he takes in a girl crippled by the torture of interrogation. His relationship with her is extremely sensual, yet beyond sex. It is nearly rapturous and holy and endlessly full of connotation.
There’s a lot of reading of signs in the book. The Magistrate has discovered some wooden paddle-like objects in the ruins of a large old building long-buried beneath the lakeshore sands. He spends hours trying to divine the script on these objects. He also spends a great deal of time trying to divine the inner life of the very boards of a prison cell where he spends a good portion of the book. It is as if he is searching, searching, searching for meaning among things which are incomprehensible, which will never yield the secrets they hold–if indeed they hold anything at all. Woven among all these physical manifestations of mystery are his vivid and undecipherable dreams. Dreams easily as appropriate and mystifying as Diego’s lions in The Old Man and the Sea.
I . . .dream of a body lying spread on its back, a wealthy of pubic hair glistening liquid black and gold across the belly, up the loins, and down like an arrow into the furrow of the legs. When I stretch out a hand to brush the hair it begins to writhe. It is not hair but bees clustered densely atop one another:hone-drnched, sticky, they crawl out of the furrow and fan their wings.
Waiting for the Barbarians can be read as a political allegory, I suppose, a metaphor for the oppressive South African government and its horrid practices. However, if that were all, the book would have no meaning once apartheid was abolished. The real issue of this book is not the good or bad of an evil empire. It is instead, the issue of how those of us who are connected, if only by our inherited citizenship, with the ugly deeds of our political superiors maintain conscience amidst our accidental, incidental collusion.
In fact, the matter goes beyond conscience and right living. It goes to the very question of salvation and the state of our souls. For, as was apparent in the earlier quote, this is in many ways a book about our exile from Eden, a crucifixion, and the way to salvation. That way, though, is as mysterious as the glyphs on The Magistrate’s wooden tiles or of the other oracular attempts in the book. Waiting for the Barbarians is not a handbook for heaven, but a book about our search for meaning in a life where we know just enough to know how wrong we are, yet not nearly enough to know how to make it all right.