Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee

Maybe it’s the national chaos this election year, but I felt it was time to read something mired in panicked imperialism. Thus, we’re looking at Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee this week.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for Jim Crace and 9th for Jim Shepard.)

Waiting for the Barbarians focuses on the Magistrate, the empire’s minor official who has been running his tiny town on the barbarian frontier for thirty years. It isn’t an important place, but it’s peaceful. There’s been talk for forever about the barbarians massing to take them over, but on the ground the Magistrate has seemed to see nothing of the sort. He doesn’t even have facilities for prisoners. Bandits swipe one or two cattle here or there, but for the most part they keep to themselves and concentrate on their nomadic lifestyle. However, things change when a visiting officer from the empire arrives to do something about the barbarians.

For one thing, the Magistrate is a good and peaceful man. He lives by the law, which he understands is the best that they have rather than perfect justice. Still, he is utterly unprepared for the kind of pointless cruelty of which the visiting officer (and indeed the empire and eventually most everyone around him) is capable:

“These are the only prisoners we have taken for a long time,” I say. “A coincidence: normally we would not have any barbarians at all to show you. This so-called banditry does not amount to much. They steal a few sheep or cut out a pack-animal from a train. Sometimes we raid them in return. They are mainly destitute tribespeople with tiny flocks of their own living along the river. It becomes a way of life. The old man says they were coming to see the doctor. Perhaps that is the truth. No one would have brought an old man and a sick boy along on a raiding party.”

*****

“Nevertheless,” he says, “I ought to question them. This evening, if it is convenient. I will take my assistant along. Also I will need someone to help me with the language. The guard, perhaps. Does he speak it?”

“We can all make ourselves understood. You would prefer me not to be there?”

“You would find it tedious.”

*****

Of the screaming which people afterwards claim to have heard from the granary, I hear nothing.

Horrified by what he sees done by the empire, he obsesses over a barbarian girl who had been blinded and had her feet broken, taking her in and performing odd quasi-sexual rituals involving washing and oiling her. Eventually, he takes a few soldiers on a long and dangerous journey to return her to her people, but upon his return he is arrested under suspicion of aiding the barbarians. He is tortured by the empire, though not as badly as what they seem to do to the barbarians, and is abandoned and laughed at by his own townspeople.

Of course, then things go badly for the empire. The barbarians, who had left things relatively alone for so long, cunningly manage to destroy crops, troops, and more. The empire’s soldiers all flee, leaving the town to its fate. The Magistrate just steps back up again, quietly trying to help the people of the town figure out how they’re going to get through the winter.

Waiting for the Barbarians is an interestingly spare exploration of imperialism and human cruelty. The writing is solid, though some of the paragraphs can swell a bit. For the most part the lines are clean though, and the descriptions are tangible. I liked how concrete everything was at the same time that the exact empire and place was left vague enough that it could be so many places. Waiting for the Barbarians is not going to be one of my favorite books, but it might be one of my favorite Coetzee books.

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