My thoughts after reading Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee
The Barbarians are us—how many times do the people with power go out to the wilderness and feel compelled to conquer and dominate—and then dare to torture and humiliate innocent people—and then—only then—when it happens to them (justly deserved, what goes around comes around, baby), they are appalled by the cruelty that humans are capable of when unchecked—the rule of law and justice ignored.
Waiting for the Barbarians is a simple story—yet with incredible depth that will shake you to your core—you’d have to be heartless not to be moved. I flinched a great deal—immersed in sadness—the writing is gorgeous—there is beauty in ugliness when it’s done right. The Magistrate of an outpost of an unnamed land that is part of the simply named Empire, the world is obviously described by its landscape—the oasis, the desert, the lake, the reeds, the mountains—the people mostly unnamed, the girl, the child, the grandson of the cook—of course the cook, only Colonel Joll, an official from the Third Bureau of the Civil Guard from the Capital, is named. He’s the bad guy you see—made bad ass because his main feature happens to be the sunglasses he wears—the obstructed view into his eyes makes him unnerving and the reference to how these new inventions prevent wrinkles around the eyes. He’s arrogant and vain, never a good sign. The main character, referred to only as the Magistrate, is an elder, he knows the people, the town, this land, he has an interest in culture and artifacts found in the ruins, and he has an understanding of the aboriginals and the nomad “barbarians” that no one from the Capital could possibly comprehend as they do not share in the experience. The Magistrate soon finds himself a victim of his knowledge, of his experience, of his interests, and of his serenity. He is accused of disloyalty—treason. The human spirit can be broken and the body abused beyond recognition, yet life goes on in spite of pain, in spite of horrors that no human should have to ever endure.
It seemed troubling to me to be reading this book while the world we live in is currently so full of unrest, Ukraine, Syria, Palestine, Israel, Iraq, our border with Mexico is a landscape of human struggle, and within our own United States—an Empire in its own right with far reaching influence all over the world—there is unrest in a Missouri community called Ferguson in which a white police officer shot and killed a black teenager one summer night—initially because he was walking in the middle of the street, drawing attention to himself—a senseless death. No matter what he had allegedly done before or during the incident that wound up taking his life, Michael Brown did not deserve to die like that—not like that. No one does.
The Barbarians are us—humans consciously do harm to another human being if they feel it is just—justice. Justice is blind—and sometimes, she looks the other way when she catches a glimpse from under the blindfold—the rule of law manipulated by those in power. It’s terrifying because the power can shift and suddenly the good guys are bad guys and the ones formerly known as bad guys are the good guys, and suddenly, life is not so simple. The Barbarians are at the gate—it depends on who you are, who the “barbarians” are in your eyes—in your mind.
First I get lies, you see—this is what happens—first lies, then pressure, then more lies, then more pressure, then the break, then more pressure, then the truth…Pain is truth; all else is subject to doubt…The Empire does not require that its servants love each other, merely that they perform their duty. P. 6
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…When I pass away I hope to merit three lines of small print in the Imperial gazette. I have not asked for more than a quiet life in quiet times. P. 9
The space about us here is merely space, no meaner or grander than the space above the shacks and tenements and temples and offices of the capital. Space is space, life is life, everywhere the same. P. 18
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 the 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. P. 23