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 Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

You see a good number of books about the rich and powerful falling when the world around them changes. However, you don’t usually see it so quietly or calmly as it seemed to me in The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. A culture is lost in the depths of time, but it isn’t violent. It’s almost as velveteen and elegant as the prose.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for Julian Barnes, 7th for Roxana Robinson, and 5th Jim Shepard.)

The Leopard centers on Don Fabrizio, a wealthy Sicilian prince with thousands of acres of estates a long, distinguished lineage. He is loyal to the Bourbon king. Unfortunately, the year is 1860. Garibaldi is about to land. The Bourbon king is about to go and the unification of Italy is coming.

Don Fabrizio sees this, he knows what is coming, but he doesn’t do a whole lot other than continue to live his life as he has. He doesn’t do much to stop it, or to aid it, or to come to terms with what is coming:

Never had he been so glad to be going to spend three months at Donnafugata as he was now, in that late August of 1860. Not only because he loved the house at Donnafugata, the people, the sense of feudal ownership surviving there, but also because, unlike other times, he felt no regret for his peaceful evenings in the observatory, his occasional visits to Mariannina. The truth was he had found the spectacle of Palermo in the last three months rather nauseating. He would have liked to have the fun of being the only one to understand the situation and accept that red-shirted “bogeyman” Garibaldi; but he had to admit that second sight was not a Salina monopoly. Everyone in Palermo seemed pleased; everyone except a mere handful of grumblers[.]”

Before Garibaldi, his nephew is a scamp for supporting insurrection, but Don Fabrizio still loves him. After Garibaldi comes, Don Fabrizio’s fortunes decline and a crass acquaintance gains more wealth and influence. Don Fabrizio would like his nephew to marry one of his daughters, but he knows that the marriage would be bad for the young man’s ambitions, as the match would not bring the young man much money or influence. Instead, he betrays his own daughter and encourages a marriage between his nephew and the daughter of the crass acquaintance.

Further, the new rulers court Don Fabrizio. They want him to help them rule. However, he declines. He instead recommends the crass acquaintance. He is declining, knows it, and is pretty ready for it to happen:

“I don’t deny that a few Sicilians may succeed in breaking the spell, once off the island; but they would have to leave it very young; by twenty it’s too late: the crust is formed; they will remain convinced that their country is badly calumniated, like all other countries, that the civilized norm is here, the oddities are elsewhere. But do please excuse me, Chevalley, I’ve let myself be carried away and I’ve probably bored you. You haven’t come all this way to hear Ezekiel deplore the misfortunes of Israel. Let us return to the subject of our conversation: I am most grateful to the Government for having thought of me for the Senate, and I ask you to express my most sincere gratitude to them. But I cannot accept. I am a member of the old ruling class, inevitably compromised with the Bourbon regime, and tied to it by chains of decency if not affection. I belong to an unfortunate generation, swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both. And what is more, as you must have realized by now, I am without illusions; what would the Senate do with me, an inexperienced legislator who lacks the faculty of self-deception, essential requisite for wanting to guide others? We of our generation must draw aside and watch the capers and somersaults of the young around this ornate catafalque. Now you need young men, bright young men, with minds asking ‘how’ rather than ‘why,’ and who are good at masking, at blending, I should say, their personal interests with vague public ideals.”

Don Fabrizio is fading. He’s fading and he just proceeds along, letting it happen.

I don’t know how historically accurate The Leopard is, though it certainly seems to be to me. I just know how beautifully The Leopard created the time, place, and tone. It’s a beautiful work chronicling the slow fadeout of the life that Don Fabrizio represents.

I can’t believe I’ve never heard of it before.