Waiting for the Barbarians
Vintage Books. First published 1980.
I long wanted to read Coetzee, though I am not sure why. I mean, I don't know in what context and where I was introduced to him. I think I vaguely confused Coetzee with Michael Ondaatje, the author of 'The English Patient', which is a book I have wanted to read for a long time. When I went online and learnt that the two authors are different, but that Coetzee is the great author, too, a Nobel laureate and Booker prize winner, I decided I should read him. I think I chose this one because it is not too long, so I could finish it even if it bores me. Well, it didn't bore me, to say the least.
The protagonist is a civil servant, a magistrate, maintaining the peace, serving out justice, and collecting taxes, in a small settlement at the edge of vast, unnamed empire. Beyond stretches the largely unexplored badlands, occupied by 'barbarian' tribes displaced by the relentless and ruthless advance of the empire. The magistrate spends his personal time in archaeology, carefully trying to recover the artifacts and reconstruct the history of a long buried civilization just outside the town. This equilibrium is shattered when, in one of the periodic drives against militant tribesman, the soldiers of the empire arrive in the town, and take over the administration. They set out on a expedition into the badlands to deal with the tribes, and though they lose a lot of men, and their expedition ends in failure, they manage to capture a few of the 'enemy', some whom they torture, and some whom they torture and kill. Finally the soldiers and their colonel go away, leaving behind one or two of the broken down tribes-people. One them is a young women who has been blinded by the torture. She is adopted by the magistrate, partly out of compassion, to try and heal her and atone for the sins of his compatriots, and partly out of lust for her young body and her unquestionable physical attractions. After many months he undertakes a quixotic but successful expedition to return her to her people. Though, he and his helpers nearly die due to the extremes of weather the party encounters in the badlands.
Sometime after their return, the soldiers and the colonel come back. Now the magistrate is jailed, and in turn tortured, for having dared to empathize and assist the barbarians and uncivilized enemies of the empire. Another, this time larger, expedition of soldiers sets out to destroy the tribes, and it fares somewhat better than than the previous one. Though again the soldiers undergo untold miseries due the landscape and the weather, they bring back to town several prisoners, including the young woman, all of whom they torture and kill. They then go away, satisfied that they have done their duty in putting down the rebellion. In the meantime the economy of the town has collapsed and most of the town people migrate to the interior towns. The magistrate and the few who remain of the town's population slowly pick up the pieces and try to return to normalcy.
There are two or three themes here that Coetzee addresses. One, of course, is the most obvious one of imperialism and colonisation, and all the evils that this brings down upon the local people, many of whom are several generations, or maybe even several millennia removed from the culture of the Empire. The second theme is about collaborating with the bureaucracy of the Empire in a well-meaning way, and then finding oneself drawn into or forced into, supporting its reprehensible extremes. And there is also the personal theme of an intelligent and kind, essentially human, old man trying to find meaning late in his life in trying for once to do the honest and correct thing, instead of just taking the most comfortable way out.
As befits an author of his reputation and stature, the writing is perfect. The story is narrated without any melodrama or tendentiousness. No opinions are shrilly thrust down our throats. The book is always interesting and moves along smoothly. Parts of the story, especially the descriptions of torture remind me of Kafka's 'In the Penal Colony', in which there is a bland description of torture machine that repeatedly carves out the name of his crime on the body of the prisoner. But even apart from this specific similarity, there is clearly a meeting of minds and sensibilities between Coetzee and other great humanists.