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.

The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

Having previously read Cat and Mouse by Günter Grass, I thought I was prepared for The Tin Drum. Sure, The Tin Drum is a much longer work and I expected it to be more complex, but I was definitely in for a surprise. The Tin Drum and Cat and Mouse seem so different to me as to potentially represent two different authors. I can certainly see similar themes in both, but Cat and Mouse is just nowhere near as strange, as ambiguous, as modern. I could make something of Cat and Mouse. The Tin Drum…well, let’s just see what I manage to come up with.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for Jim Crace, 6th for Michael Griffith, 10th for Allan Gurganus, 7th for John Irving, and 10th for Thomas Keneally.)

Even before I got to the bizarre journey that Oskar Matzerath makes through pre-WWII, WWII, and post-WWI Germany (a journey that I’m not entirely sure goes anywhere linear), the very first paragraph signaled the opening of a very strange book:

Granted: I’m an inmate in a mental institution; my keeper watches me, scarcely lets me out of sight, for there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can’t see through blue-eyed types like me.

So, we have a novel narrated to us by a mental patient. However, is he crazy, not crazy, or both? Should we trust him? He says fantastic things…but he seems so reasonable, so intelligent. Frankly, I can’t be sure whether to believe him, not believe him, or only partially believe him.

For example, he claims to have been born with full awareness. Supposedly, he heard his father at his birth say that he would grow up to be a grocer and thus decided never to grow up (beyond the age of three where he was to receive a tin drum from his mother). So that people don’t wonder why he doesn’t grow any bigger, he stages an accident:

It took me a minute or two to understand what the trapdoor to our cellar demanded of me. Not suicide, by God! That would have been too simple. But the alternative was difficult, painful, demanded sacrifice; and even then, as always when a sacrifice is demanded of my, my brow broke out in a sweat. Above all, no harm must come to my drum; I would have to carry it safely down the sixteen well-worn steps and place it among the sacks of flour to explain its undamaged state. Then back up to the eighth step, no, down one, actually the fifth would do just as well. But from there safety and credible injury could not be combined. Back up then, too high this time, to the tenth, and finally, from the ninth step, I flung myself down, carrying a shelf laden with bottles of raspberry syrup along with me, and landed head-first on the cement floor of our cellar.

Later, he decides to grow again and does at the exact same time that Kurt, either his son or his half-brother depending on whether you believe Oskar or not, throws a rock at Oskar’s head.

Is Oskar’s lack of growth, and subsequent growth, a result of his decisions as he says? Or, are both products of his respective incidents and only interpreted by him as his choice? Really, I can’t be sure. I kept going back and forth as I read and I still can’t make up my mind.

But, let’s consider the journey Oskar takes for a moment. He goes from drumming under bleachers to disrupt a Nazi rally to entertaining the troops, from youth gang leader to gravestone carver to model to famous musician, eventually to mental patient incarcerated for a murder he didn’t commit but took the rap for on a whim. What does this all mean? What possible linear course is found in the summation of all these things?

Man…hell if I know.

What I do know is that The Tin Drum is wild and fantastic:

With no plan in mind, I made myself understood on tin. I forgot all the standard nightclub routines. No jazz for Oskar either. I didn’t like being taken for a maniacal drummer by the crowd anyway. Though I considered myself a decent percussionist, I was no purebred jazz musician. I love jazz, just as I love Viennese waltzes. I could have played either, but I didn’t feel I had to. When Schmuh asked me to step in with my drum, I didn’t play what I could play, but what was in my heart. Oskar pressed his drumsticks into the hands of a three-year-old Oskar. I drummed up and down former paths, showed the world as a three-year-old sees it, and the first thing I did was harness that postwar crowd incapable of a true orgy to a cord, that is, I led them down Posadowskiweg into Auntie Kauer’s kindergarten, had them standing with their mouths hanging open, holding one another by the hand, turning their toes inward, waiting for me, their Pied Piper…. Beneath a night sky studded with fairy-tale stars, slightly cool, but seemingly made to order for the occasion, in the spring of nineteen-fifty, I dismissed the gentlemen and ladies, who carried on for some time with their childish nonsense in Altstadt and did not return home till the police finally helped them recall their age, social position, and telephone numbers.

Oskar has no problem stealing Jesus from a church, but torments himself as responsible for deaths to which he only bore a tangential relationship. He fully commits himself to something, and then just wanders off when it seems to no longer interest him. Between the oddities of the character, the non-traditional flow of the plot, and the complexity even in the sentence structure, I can only say that I am surprised to see this book come out of Germany in the late fifties. I would have expected, whether correctly or incorrectly, something much more stolid and traditional.

In the end, I may not fully know what to make of The Tin Drum. However, I do know that it is an amazing book. I guess that will just have to do.