Saturday, February 10, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #41: Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee

It's a joy to pick up a book knowing almost nothing about it or the author -- and to find that book excellent. (If the book is lousy, you always wish you knew more up front.) I've never read J.M. Coetzee before, and barely know who he is -- when I picked up this book to read it, I had to check to make sure "he" was the appropriate pronoun.

This 2010 Penguin Ink edition of Waiting for the Barbarians presents the 1980 novel with tattoo-inspired art by C.C. Askew on the front, back, and French flaps, where a description of the book or author would usually be. Instead, there's a single paragraph on the first page to describe it as a "modern classic," characterize Coetzee as a Nobel Laureate, and and provide two sentences about the story. That's it -- but how much more does a 180-page book about a nameless man need? It's almost as easy to just read it.

If you want to repeat my experience, stop here, and add Waiting for the Barbarians to your to-be-read list. If not, let me tell you more...

Somewhere at the edge of an Empire, down a long and lonely road, a small dusty town sits next to a small dusty fort, with a small garrison of men stationed there so long they're practically locals. Nearby is a lake that's slowly drying up and turning to salt, and between there and the distant mountains are scrublands and desert -- hard, bleak lands with little life or water and no permanent settlements. Roaming through the scrub and the desert and the mountains are the barbarians. Presumably the barbarians are made up of different tribes,  but to the Empire they are all just "barbarians." In that fort sits a magistrate. He's been in that town for decades, doing a decent enough job and administering the region reasonably well. He's old and fat and devoted to small pleasures, hoping to just live out the rest of his days in this sleepy town in a sleepy time.

But there's a rumor in the Empire: the barbarians are gathering. They're preparing for war. They will sweep across the entire frontier and threaten the heartlands. And so Colonel Joll, from the Third Bureau, comes to this small nameless town, a quiet and cold functionary in black-smoked glasses, to question the barbarians and find out their plans. Men like him are investigating all along the borders, each one with a squad of soldiers, outsiders loyal only to their Third Bureau commander, ready to do what needs to be done to save the Empire.

The Colonel starts with two men, one old and one young, found near the site of a raid. They claim to have nothing to do with the raid, to have been coming to town to see a doctor for the young man's wound, but the Colonel will not believe any story he hears before the questioning starts. Eventually, the questioning end, one of the two men leaves, and the Colonel is ready to continue.

The townsfolk wouldn't consider the fishing people on the lake to be barbarians. But Colonel Joll is from far away, and the fishing people are not townsfolk. So he and his soldiers drag back many of them, to fill up a makeshift prison and start a more intensive round of questioning. The Colonel's questions must go on, and they demand many bodies and much blood.

And then, one day, the Colonel is satisfied. He will head back to the center of the Empire, to consult with the other men like himself, to pool their knowledge and piece together what can be know of the plot for barbarian attack. And the magistrate wants to make things back to the way they were, to turn his little town sleepy again, to forget the torturers and the bodies they worked on.

He, unlike we readers, doesn't know he's still at the beginning of the story. Much more will happen from there, and Joll will inevitably return.

Waiting for the Barbarians is obviously a novel about imperialism, but it's about no particular Empire or time. This Empire has guns but, at least on this frontier, no cars. They ride horses through the dust. It could be any time in the last two or three hundred years, almost anywhere. The Empire and the barbarians could be of any mixture of skin color.

In 1980 in Coetzee's native South Africa, there was an obvious allegorical parallel.

In 2018, in the USA, after almost two decades of pointless imperial adventures and black sites and our own round of questions of clearly guilty barbarians, it has at least one more.

Every reader could find a different parallel, another atrocity to be reminded of. This is one of those horribly repeated human stories. Coetzee's version is taut and precise and devastating, true in its universality to evoke whichever imperial power a reader brings to mind first.

I'd like to say that reading Waiting for the Barbarians will help stop it from happening again. But reading doesn't have that power. This story will repeat as long as we're humans, as long as we're barbarians. Read it anyway.

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