J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians is a stark, allegorical tale that is haunting, strange and filled with impending menace from page one. It is...moreJ.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians is a stark, allegorical tale that is haunting, strange and filled with impending menace from page one. It is the tale of The Magistrate, a mid-level bureaucrat who presides over a small settlement on the edge of a pre-industrial Empire. The Empire is not named, the Barbarians are not specified, and though the particulars of the settings are echoed by historical counterparts, Coetzee leaves out enough details to make the place timeless, universal, fabulistic.
At the time the book was released, 1980, Coetzee was thought primarily to be commenting on the grim events in his native South Africa, then still firmly in the malignant grip of government sponsored apartheid. The book is rife with the heavy-handed gestures, myopic double-talk, torture and brutality that black South Africans were subject to at that time. But by creating a nameless kingdom in a non-specific time Coetzee has escaped the fate of having this book being viewed only through the historical prism of South African apartheid. Other real world parallels some to mind now, other phrases flit to the forefront of consciousness: Abu Ghraib, The War on Terror, extraordinary rendition, torture flights. The brutality depicted in Waiting for the Barbarians never goes out of style, the confused attempts at moral action that The Magistrate undertakes that get him labeled as a man of unsound mind and a collaborator are being made every day by real people. Waiting for the Barbarians is a wonderful fictional testament to the harsh, yet more truthful each day, Orwell quote: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever.”
If it is one form of literary genius to be able take existing events and reframe them for more universal application, to help ignite in the reader a larger spark of understanding, compassion and fellow feeling in relation to the mundane atrocities recent history has thrust upon us then Coetzee deserves that title. But Coetzee also brings a compelling style and a precise use of language to the table, packing into the pages of a very short novel, what many other writers could not achieve in a work ten times its size. His style is understated but beautiful, the book comes constantly alive with wonderfully crystalline descriptive passages and exact attention to the interior journey of The Magistrate, revealed in his thoughts and his dreams. The book is very much also talking about our own interior Barbarians, the parts of us not wholly assimilated, the parts of us we like to wall off from our every day conception of self, the parts we are most likely to hide to loved ones and strangers(the parts of us, ironically, that are often most vital and hale). It also is a strange, aborted love story between a torture victim The Magistrate takes into his bed and the weird dance of guilt, sensuality and thwarted desire that plays out between them. Coetzee is true master, this book hit me hard and on as many levels as possible, something while reading I was completely immersed in and upon finishing was utterly moved, disturbed and maybe even subtly changed by. A great book by an author whose other works I will now eagerly devour. (less)
This book blew my mind. This book also ripped out my heart and stomped on it and then stuffed the battered organ back in my chest cavity, breathed fea...moreThis book blew my mind. This book also ripped out my heart and stomped on it and then stuffed the battered organ back in my chest cavity, breathed feathery soft on it and set it pumping again. It was that good, that moving, that inspiring. It brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion and left me feeling that wonderful mind expanding, worldview shifting buzz that only art (or sex, or chocolate) of the highest order can accomplish. I feel subtlety changed by this book.
First off, it engaged my intellect. Its intricate puzzle of loosely connected stories kept my mind sharp to each twist and turning, looking intently for the next incident that would tie disparate characters, locales and chronology together. Mitchell has first rate literary gifts, he juggles more balls than most writers would even dream of-and to go with that metaphor he’s so ludicrously daring and audacious in his choices that he’s more akin to those lunatic jugglers who work with sharp, flaming objects then some tired clown with three fuzz-faded tennis balls. The fact that this was a first novel demands even more respect.
Mitchell mixes philosophical concerns of the greatest gravitas(death, reincarnation, identity, creativity and theft, corporate greed, freedom vs. security, class agonies and the oppression of women ) with the old-fashioned capacity to tell a good story in unobtrusive, yet supple prose.
It has come to my attention that Mitchell isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Some of my good pals here think he is a cold literary technician, empty of the wisdom he attempts to convey in this book. I couldn’t disagree more. Along with his intricate plotting and deft use of language, is a wonderful (wonder-filled?), compassionate view of the world that is inclusive, empty of petty judgment and wise to the hardscrabble shit of earthly existence, the commiserate joys of physical joining be it loin to loin, heart to heart, or in mere comradely shoulder to shoulder grinding through the days and the inevitability and sometimes desirability of that great equalizer, death.
So again back to the heart, the bruised organ I mentioned at the beginning of my review. I think I’m much more a man of the heart than a man of the head. I feel way too much. And I think maybe my loving of this book night be just as likely because I’m a rube and a sucker not because I’m a greater intellect than those that hated it. Maybe they are smarter than me. Probably I’m okay with that. Maybe I liked it because I’m foolish and open and willing to look for something, in this case an intricate Buddhist-inspired diamond-like view of humanity and its sufferings that showed that we are all connected, beyond boundaries of country, time, the accidents of birth and family, even to and beyond the gates of death. Even though my conception of a personal God has faded to practical non-existence I am still pulled to joy-filled myths of individual lives having meaning, and there being a benevolent seed of being at our centers and at the center of the universe.
And maybe I’m wrong. And maybe none of this matters. And maybe this book is just an intricate con-job. And maybe that is okay too. But this book made me happy. And I think you should give it a try. (less)