J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting For The Barbarians

With the passing of William H. Gass late last year, there is a vacancy in my heart for the title of best living English writer, but with Waiting For The Barbarians, first published nearly 40 years ago, South Africa’s J.M. Coetzee has made a compelling case. His little novel places us at the outskirts of an unnamed Empire, at the supposed dividing line between civilization and barbarism, where an unnamed Magistrate presides over a peaceful farming and trading community. Decades have elapsed since his initial posting, and our Magistrate has developed a quiet admiration for the hardy natives of the land, who fish and farm and hunt, migrating when weather patterns make any of the above impracticable. The tranquility of this remote existence is threatened by the arrival of Colonel Joll, sent “under emergency power” by the Empire to suppress an alleged barbarian uprising. Joll’s sadism, and the Empire’s tacit approval of his methods, prompts a crisis of conscience in the Magistrate – and raises the possibility that he might share responsibility for the Empire’s depredations.

Prior to the dramas of the novel, we can imagine our Magistrate living a prosperous but uneventful life, fattening himself as the leader of a small but stable community, filling his life with the petty pleasures and trivial duties befitting a man of his position. “I have not asked for more than a quiet life in quiet times,” he tells us. Nonetheless, he has a spark of nobility in him. He perceives, better than most, the dignity of the natives, who have survived in this remote wilderness long before the Empire’s boldest settlers arrived, as well as the hysteria they inspire among the citizens of the Empire:

In private I observed that once in every generation, without fail, there is an episode of hysteria about the barbarians. There is no woman living along the frontier who has not dreamed of a dark barbarian hand coming from under the bed to grip her ankle, no man who has not frightened himself with visions of the barbarians carousing in his home, breaking the plates, setting fire to the curtains, raping his daughters. These dreams are the consequence of too much ease. Show me a barbarian and I will believe.

The barbarians, by the Magistrate’s reckoning, are more of a theoretical threat than an actual one, and yet Colonel Joll is not deterred in the slightest by this. When he cannot turn up murderous invaders, he arrests farmers and tradespeople, some young, some old, many in ill health. And when they do not confess to plotting an uprising, he extracts the story he wants by torturing them; the screams of his victims are heard throughout the Magistrate’s compound. For Joll, “pain is truth; all else is subject to doubt.” Our Magistrate feels a natural revulsion to Joll, and yet he cannot disentangle himself entirely from Joll or his official duties:

On the other hand, who am I to assert my distance from him? I drink with him, I eat with him, I show him the sights, I afford him every assistance as his letter of commission requests, and more. The Empire does not require that its servants love each other, merely that they perform their duty.

Those of us living in the wake of the Nuremberg trials have little patience or sympathy for “duty” as an excuse for the commission of evil, and in time the Magistrate will come to realize the poverty of this excuse as well.

Among the hapless natives rounded up by Joll, there is a young woman who suffers a particularly brutal torture: her father is killed, both her ankles are broken, and a hot rod is used to sear both her eyes, leaving her nearly blind. When Joll departs, the Magistrate offers her a position in his household staff, simultaneously providing her with employment and housing. Out of sympathy for her suffering, he washes her feet and bandages her ankles, prostrating himself before her. But when he takes her into his bed, he pollutes his act of kindness, for he knows that, having no alternative, she cannot refuse him. “My heart goes out to her, but what can I do? Whether I appear to her decked in my robes of office or whether I stand naked before her or whether I tear open my breast for her, I am the same man.” The woman becomes an allegorical figure, a stand-in for the native wards of the Empire, and the impossibility of any equal relationship between them vexes the Magistrate. It will be in meditating upon their relationship that the Magistrate finally comes to realize his own complicity in the crimes of the Empire. After bringing her to orgasm and finding her no more receptive to him, he lies in bed reflecting on her emotional distance from him:

I am disquieted. “What do I have to do to move you?”: these are the words I hear in my head in the subterranean murmur that has begun to take the place of conversation. “Does no one move you?”; and with a shift of horror I behold the answer that has been waiting all the time offer itself to me in the image of a face masked by two black glassy insect eyes from which there comes no reciprocal gaze but only my doubled image cast back at me.

I shake my head in a fury of disbelief. No! No! No! I cry to myself. It is I who am seducing myself, out of vanity, into these meanings and correspondences. What depravity is it that is creeping upon me? I search for secrets and answers, no matter how bizarre, like an old woman reading tea-leaves. There is nothing to link me with torturers, people who sit waiting like beetles in dark cellars. How can I believe that a bed is anything but a bed, a woman’s body anything but a site of joy? I must assert my distance from Colonel Joll! I will not suffer for his crimes!

When Joll first appears to us, the Magistrate remarks on his sunglasses – a novelty in this remote outpost on the edges of the Empire – and we readers note the symbolic image of a man whose gaze cannot be reciprocated. Coetzee returns to this potent image to assert the Magistrate’s complicity in Joll’s crimes, his sharing in the guilt, for in those same dark lenses the Magistrate finds his own visage reflected back to him.

The title of Coetzee’s novel comes from a poem by the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy, whose final lines read: “Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? / Those people were a kind of solution.” The cohesiveness of Coetzee’s fictional Empire – as well as the legitimacy of its rulers – was maintained by an oppositional stance: we are the civilized, and they are the barbarians. The painful realization of Coetzee’s Magistrate, which is the beginning of wisdom, is Aleksandr Solzenitsyn’s epiphany as well: “[…] the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.” And who would not recoil from recognizing their own evil?