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Waiting for the Barbarians – J.M. Coetzee

July 14, 2011

It has been nearly four weeks since I finished reading J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians and yet it is still a novel that I think about frequently. I am unsure of whether this is because of its lasting power or because I feel the need to reflect on my experience with it with you yet, but it certainly is rare for a book to last so long in the forefront – or one of the forefronts of my mind. I will admit that I have been very fortunate in the books I have been reading this summer, and for 2011 in general. I will also admit that I feel this is a book that will only grow in my estimation as I consider to look back on it.

To call Waiting for the Barbarians a novel is a bit of a slander on the term novel. At fewer than two hundred pages I do not know if it is long enough to justify the title. Yet, the manner in which those two fewer-than-two-hundred pages are used is much more efficiently that most any other writer I can imagine. The passage of time and the cluster of events in this novel is quite mesmerizing.

I went into Waiting for the Barbarians mostly blind – I picked it up because of the information provided on the back cover. And, as it was my first Coetzee experience, I don’t think I was really aware of the level of drama that I was going to get myself into. I had heard of him through awards – primarily the Man Booker – and was curious to see if I would fall in love with him in the same way that the international literary community seems to have.

More on that later.

You see, Waiting for the Barbarians, despite its mesmerizing pace and surprising development, did not wow me while I was reading it. In fact, there were portions that downright puzzled me at the time, and continue to puzzle me now. Let me provide you with an outline.

The book starts out with tension. The protagonist and semi-narrator, the Magistrate, welcomes a representative of the central government to his small provincial town to investigate allegations of livestock theft – standard procedure, but a rare development in this frontier village. The central government in this unnamed state is churning warnings about the Barbarians – who are merely those who are not within the borders. The Barbarians are meeting together. The Barbarians are making an army. The Barbarians are preparing to fight. We best prepare ourselves to defend ourselves.

It is brutal, the opening chapter. And immediately you see the character of the Magistrate shine through as a foil to the world around him. What is very, very impressive is that J.M. Coetzee does not keep him a foil. Though he never falls into line with the developing war, or the bustling support for the mass destruction of any Barbarian force in the town, he becomes implicitly attached to the events – a part of them, and, by not refusing to remove himself from the society that is causing this conflict, he questions his own complicity.

This is a novel with few characters. There is the magistrate, his shocking lover, the Barbarians, and the Army. The last two are not really people, and the shocking lover never develops into much of a character as much as she develops into the means by which the magistrate falls from his ideal image of himself to a truer understanding.

J.M. Coetzee is clearly a stellar writer as he has produced in this novel(la?) a world with history and conflict and backstory that we all somehow understand without having been told. This fits into his ideas perfectly – of civilization falling and screwing up, of us all being victims in this but being complicit in it continuing. Of making enemies out of nothing to consolidate our own power, and of refusing to stand up against it even when we know it is happening, and of imagining that our little world will never change. Sounds familiar, and earnestly honest. I suppose this is what J.M. Coetzee is known for – likely the reason for which he has received so many awards (including the Nobel Prize in Literature).

And he asks us these questions with remarkable writing:

“You think you know what is just and what is not. I understand. We all think we know.” I had no doubt, myself, then, that at each moment each one of us, man, woman, child, perhaps even the poor old horse turning the mill-wheel, knew what was just: all creatures come into the world bringing with them the memory of justice. “But we live in a world of laws,” I said to my poor prisoner, “a world of the second-best. There is nothing we can do about that. We are fallen creatures. All we can do is to uphold the laws, all of us, without allowing the memory of justice to fade.”

Somehow though, this book never settled with me. It may have been because Coetzee’s voice was new for me, and that I imagined I could zip through this short book with little consequence. But I am not sure of that. About three quarters of the way through I decided to see how this fit into his bibliography – it is his third novel. So my assumption is that the sometimes awkward voicing, the sometimes awkward use of devices and characters in the first half is becoming this book is one with which he grew substantially as a writer. While I don’t doubt his vision – it is a damn fine, and damn terrifying vision of our human condition – I do doubt the standard of his writing in the first half.

But, when reflecting on books, one must always think about how they make you feel. And, in all honesty, this is a novel that continues to resonate with me – a month later than when I read it – and continues to challenge my ideas. Not to the extent that Atlas Shrugged has, but to the extent that I want to read it again. And with other people – because I want to discuss his ideas, and translate them into something of my own. And I want to better understand the Magistrate and his lover – perhaps one of the most perplexing relationships I have witnessed in literature.

I do recommend this book. Quite highly. It is a hard read because it challenges us so much. And it is definitely a book that reveals its early voice in a developing author. All that said, it impressed me – I will read more by him, and soon. Because my immediate reaction to setting this book down was that I wanted more, more, more. Books that have that effect are worth reading.

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