“What has made it impossible for us to live in time like fish in water, like birds in air, like children? It is the fault of Empire! Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.”
“When some men suffer unjustly, it is the fate of those who witness their suffering to suffer the shame of it.”
During a tumultuous period in the history of apartheid, the government in Pretoria, morally isolated by the international community, committed some of the worst excesses of violence against the native tribes whom it had subjugated and humiliated for more than two centuries. In the midst of this bloodletting, J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians was published in 1980. The novel clearly indicts the apartheid government for crimes against humanity, though Coetzee was clever enough to set his story in the horse-and-wagon days in a frontier, far away, long ago. Also, intelligently, Pretoria, South Africa, even the Magistrate of this frontier town are never outright named, so that the injustice it dramatizes could be anywhere in the world. Technology might evolve, but Man's abominations only change form or flags or color.
Our narrator, the Magistrate, does not rule nor think like a despot, but trusts in the Law, even when he doesn't agree with it (as he explains to a young deserter he is sentencing, “All we can do is to uphold the laws, all of us, without allowing the memory of justice to fade.”). His days progress uneventfully with dull bureaucratic work, he hunts (but sometimes lacks the nerve to kill his prey), reads the classics, visits the outpost's demimonde once a week, and collects artifacts of the desert from past civilizations. He has “not asked for more than a quiet life in quiet times.”
This tranquility is disturbed by a Colonel Joll, a man who hides his eyes behind dark glasses and is investigating a “disturbance” caused by some barbarians. There are two prisoners, a boy and his grandfather, hardly “terrorist” types, but without due process and under the duress of torture (in which the old man dies) the boy, traumatized and scarred, concedes a barbarian plot in the works. The Magistrate, who loathes the Colonel's methods, nevertheless rubber-stamps a reconnaissance expedition into the countryside. A week later, prisoners are sent back, aboriginal fisherfolk, arrested for simply existing. After Joll returns to the capital the Magistrate has the prisoners released to return to their land.
But one young woman doesn't leave. Her father had been killed in Joll's interrogations and she has had her ankles broken and her corneas burned so that she can only see penumbra forms. She is begging for food, and the Magistrate taking pity on her, invites her to work in the kitchen, and she becomes something of a concubine. But he doesn't sleep with her-- he washes and dresses her wounds and caresses her body, but doesn't go any further. The actions of the Magistrate seem to embody liberal guilt: the white man feels bad about the unfairness of the power structure, but as he yet benefits from such relationships, hesitates to go any further than cosmetic aid. Eventually, accompanied by a guide and two soldiers, the Magistrate undertakes a harrowing journey to return the woman (she, too, never named) to her people.
When he returns, he finds a charged atmosphere in his sleepy outpost. The Magistrate-- accused of conspiring with the enemy regarding the government's intended campaign-- is stripped of authority and imprisoned, while Joll assumes despotic rule. In the process of losing everything: his authority, his reputation, his comfortable life, the Magistrate moves beyond pity and compassion into outrage and rather than apologize he determines to protest and provoke the Colonel, until he is then stripped of his last vestige, his dignity, when severely tortured: “They were interested only in demonstrating to me what it meant to live in a body, as a body, a body which can entertain notions of justice only as long as it is whole and well, which very soon forgets them when its head is gripped and a pipe is pushed down its gullet and pints of salt water are poured into it till it coughs and retches and flails and voids itself.”
The Magistrate is so humiliated authorities don't even bother locking him up anymore. He is allowed to roam the yard like an animal, begging for scraps, his self-respect annihilated. For all his concepts of social justice, he is no revolutionary; he merely wants to survive, even “to be fat again.” The crisis for the Magistrate comes when he cannot offer a credible alternative between Joll's fascist maneuvers and the only truly righteous scenario: “Justice: once that word is uttered, where will it all end? Easier to shout No! Easier to be beaten and made a martyr. Easier to lay my head on a block than to defend the cause of justice for the barbarians: for where can that argument lead but to laying down our arms and opening the gates of the town to the people whose land we have raped?”
Through it all, the Colonel doubles down on the settlers' worst fears regarding their “enemy.” He is invisible, just outside the walls, lurking: “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.” The soldiers, drunken, carousing parasites on the town, are thus bandied as the last defense against the much ballyhooed “barbarians.” Never mind that many of the settlers have never encountered or been directly threatened by this invoked Boogeyman. Their emotions are merely fomented by the most obvious physical differences in “us-and-them” adversarial relations. And it can be hopeless talking them out of their fears and prejudices: “How do you eradicate contempt, especially when the contempt is founded on nothing more substantial than differences in table manners, variations in the structure of the eyelid?” Of course, it doesn't take much effort to realize that the titular barbarians we await are not necessarily the "other," but a kind of monster within, surfacing when we give in to our prejudices, self-interest, and fear of the unknown.
The writer, J. M. Coetzee
Before his fall from power, the Magistrate is queried by a military officer as to the intentions of the barbarians. The answer is simple, but actualization seemingly impossible. “They want an end to the spread of settlements across their land. They want their land back, finally. They want to be free to move about with their flocks from pasture to pasture as they used to.” We could be talking Tibetans, Palestinians, and the Aboriginals, to name but a few indigenous peoples whose lives were uprooted, reconstituted in poverty and neglect, and sentenced to live a second-class existence. That is the most poignant reaction to Coetzee's novel-- that he has dramatized the violence of power structures, to guide our outrage and compassion, reminding us of the complex bravery choosing to stand for social justice, all the while being faithful to universal truths in beautiful, clear prose. It is not every day that a reader discovers an overlooked masterpiece.