KDS (decemberthirty) wrote,

...there was no way, once I had picked up the lantern, for me to put it down again.

J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians tells the story of a magistrate in a small frontier town on the edge of the Empire. The nameless magistrate is a civil servant of long standing, content with the status quo. The people of his walled town grow grain and fruit, store food for the long hard winters, hunt along the shores of the lake, and coexist peacefully with the nomadic tribes outside the gates. Everything is fine until Colonel Joll arrives from the capital with orders to put a stop to the barbarians--those same nomadic tribes--who are preparing to make war on the Empire. Joll cannot be swayed by the peaceful reality; he conducts raids, brings in prisoners, and tortures them until they confirm the things he already believes. This is the end of the magistrate's complacent existence, as he begins the process of resisting Joll and Joll's methods, and the much slower, longer process of understanding the nature of empire and his complicity, however unthinking or unwilling, in the deeds of his own Empire.

That may seem like a lot to tackle in a book that's only 150 pages long. And that's not even the whole of it. There is also a trek across the desert in winter, complete with evocative descriptions of the changing landscape and the hardships of the journey. There is a strange relationship between the magistrate and a barbarian girl who has been blinded and had her feet mutilated by Colonel Joll. There are brutal scenes of torture and famishment. There are the mysterious ruins of an earlier civilization buried in the dunes of the desert, and thin slips of poplar bearing their inscrutable writing. And yet the slim little book never feels rushed or overstuffed. Perhaps this is because Coetzee's prose is so spare and clean, or because he is so economical, bringing characters and settings to life with just a few well-chosen phrases.

In some ways, Waiting for the Barbarians felt almost like a fairy tale. The story seems to take place in the same world where fairy tales are set--in a place where there are towns, deserts, and lakes, but none of them have names; where it is always some time in the past, though never a specific year. There is a sort of fairy tale detachment in the way the story is told, too. Although the books is written in first person, from the perspective of the magistrate, he seems to be telling his own story from a great distance, as though it all happened many years ago. It reminded me most of Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal. Both books are meditative takes on totalitarianism, both are short, both make use of archetypes and feel almost allegorical. Neither one affected me much emotionally; both contain powerful images and plenty to think about.

And now I am reading Anna Karenina, which I expect will keep me busy for a while.
Tags: j.m. coetzee
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