in praise of barbarians

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[CN: incarceration, torture]

Most of the really excellent novels ive read in the past few years i want to reread, in like a few years’ time. But WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS is one id like to reread right away, but im too damn busy. Much of it is strange and puzzle like. Why does the Magistrate narrate in first person present tense? People always say present tense has more “immediacy,” or that it brings us closer to the action than past tense. ive never seen it that way. Present tense is weird and artificial, as if the story is outside historical time, which might tempt the allegorical/thematic reading. im told this book is what put J.M. Coetzee on the map, and it came out after the murder of Steve Biko. There’s absolutely a referential aspect to the novel, but finding some kind of allegorical 1 to 1 correspondence at the risk of jettisoning the book’s actual material is high school business. The prose is so rich and immediate in details — and what are you supposed to make of all the dreams, which are all really creepy? The Magistrate at one points drops the world “allegory.” We have to recognize that there are things more subtle and elusive behind that type of reading going on here.

The setting is a walled frontier town for an unnamed Empire. It sits on a lake oasis surrounded by desert and salt flats. The novel’s divided into six parts. They aren’t named but they happen to go with a particular season, from fall through the winter of next year. Each part is made of small scenes, in which the Magistrate is constantly making decisions that gradually mark him out as a traitor to his class, a “barbarian lover,” an enemy of the state. First he helps out a boy prisoner whose dad was tortured.

In the second part he takes in a barbarian girl who has been blinded and her feet broken. But the Magistrate is a nasty old man. He covets her sexually, but on top of that wants to be a surrogate father to her. There’s a Pygmalion kind of dynamic where he tries to figure her out (the marks of torture on her body), and reconstruct what she was like before being captured and brutalized by the forces of civilization. It takes an emotional toll on her. It’s clear that this is another form of torture.

There are other things going on that deepen the theme of civilization. There are traces of an ancient culture buried in the desert.

One of my hobbies has been to excavate these ruins. If there are no repairs to be done to the irrigation works, I sentence petty offenders to a few days of digging in the dunes; soldiers are sent here on punishment details; and at the height of my enthusiasm I even used to pay for casual labour out of my own pocket. The work is unpopular, for the diggers must toil under a hot sun or in the biting wind with no shelter and with sand flying everywhere. They work half-heartedly, not sharing my interest (which they see as whimsical), discouraged by the speed at which the sand drifts back. But in the course of a few years I have succeeded in uncovering several of the largest structures to floor level. The most recently excavated stands out like a shipwreck in the desert, visible even from the town walls. From this structure, perhaps a public building or a temple, I have recovered the heavy poplar lintel, carved with a design of interlaced leaping fish, that now hangs over my fireplace. Buried below floor levle in a bag that crumbled to nothing as soon as it was touched I also found a cache of wooden slips on which are painted characters in a script I have not seen the like of. We have found slips like these before, scattered like clothespegs in the ruins, but most so bleached by the action of sand that the writing has been illegible. The characters on the new slips are clear as the day they were written. Now, in the hope of deciphering the script, I have set about collecting all the slips I can, and have let the children who play here know that if they find one it is always worth a penny.

There isn’t really a way to even begin to make sense of them, though he tries many methods. The reader’s in pretty much the same situation when confronted with the Magistrate’s dreams, which involve a body made of bees, or a dead bird in a pit, or faceless children making snow sculptures. And some characters are willfully deprived of the basic means to understand. Sight and blindness is a recurring image. The novel opens with a description of the torturer Colonel Joll’s sunglasses — every one in the Empire’s capital is wearing them.

There’s a lot more to be said about these mysteries, like the soldiers who desert only miles away from food and shelter, from civilization. Small bits like these which steadily mount a critique against all of these values. But the novel is such a beautiful and earthy reading experience you could fly past them in favor of the teases of culture, food, clothing, and literature of this story world. The book also made me think of Freud, portraying civilization as a repression of might makes right; but then all of these supposedly wonderful advances and creature comforts, in the US and elsewhere, are built on a consent to torture, which isn’t just on political prisoners but poverty and police surveillance and racism and misogyny as systems, etc.

What has made it impossible for us to live in time like fish in water, like birds in the 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 or 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. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation.

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