B-MO's Reviews > Waiting for the Barbarians

Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
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Oct 02, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: culture-and-politics, favorite-stuff, fiction, political-stuff
Recommended to B-MO by: An english professor (Vicki Larsen)
Recommended for: anyone with half a brain
Read in September, 2008 , read count: 2

Below is a close reading of a passage of this book which I felt was extremely important and interesting to understanding this book....BTW, this book was amazing...a string of closely tied together metaphors and iconography....

“You feel that it is unjust, I know, that you should be punished for having the feelings of a good son. You think that you know what is just and what is not. Understand. We all think we know.” I had no doubt, myself, then, that at each moment each one of us, man, woman, child….knew what was just: all creatures come into the world bringing with them the memory of justice. “But we live in a world of laws,” I said to my poor prisoner, “a world of the second best….We are fallen creatures. All we can do is uphold the laws, all of us, without allowing the memory of justice to fade.”….. “I would leave the courtroom and return to my apartment and sit in the rocking-chair in the dark all evening, without appetite, until it was time to go to bed….”


This passage is key in the book as it deals with one of the books strongest motifs; justice, and plays it against another concept which justice is commonly thought part of; law.

Throughout the book the magistrate is fighting in his own mind about the concept of justice and what it means to his life, or how the lack of justice of the empire has allowed him a life of easy pleasures. He has been struggling with his ‘closeness’ with Joll in the barbarian girl’s eyes, and here mirrors Joll even in words. The magistrate telling this boy, “we all think we know [what justice is]” mirrors a conversation in which Joll is mocking him for being the “One Just Man”, the author is saying that the magistrate was right, he and Joll are two sides of the coin of empire.

One of the most compelling ideas presented in this passage, which plays off the ‘two sides of the same coin’ idea is his confession of sitting “without appetite” all evening. The passage helps explain the elaborate washing of the barbarian girl throughout the beginning of the novel and his continued questioning of Joll's cleansing procedures after tormenting barbarians. ([has the empire created new men able to move from unclean to clean? How can he eat after?]) The magistrate thinks this man must be a new type of man created by the empire, not as some general observation, but because Joll can do something he was never able to do, to live with himself after suffering someone an injustice.

The idea put forth of “fallen creatures” ties this religious idea with the idea put forth throughout the book of our inability to turn back once knowledge of injustice has been put forth to us in such straight forward ways, despite wanting to, which showed up several times throughout the book in our narrators thoughts.(21, 85, 101) Our status as ‘fallen creatures’ combined with our innate ‘memory of justice’ makes it unpleasant and unwieldy to have information of injustice. The magistrates punishing a boy for being a “good son” further invokes this religious imagery which is consistent throughout the text, after all, how can punishing Jesus be right? Jesus was, after all, crucified as a maintenance of the Roman Empire.

The idea that law contradicts with justice is a continuation of this religious theme, as fallen creatures we obviously can not create justice, something we have given up with our fall. However, with our laws we never cease to forget justice, indeed, we keep it on the tip of our tongues. Magistrates, who offer judgments on the laws, are similarly called justices in our highest courts. In our most common dictionaries (Merriam-Webster), justice can mean either fairness or “the administration of the laws.”

Similarly, as if the author had been toying with us the whole time, playing on the two sides of the same coin idea again, he notes that he is the side of the coin of empire while the empire is at peace, while Joll is the side of the coin of empire in harder times, in this same dictionary, ‘Justice of the Peace’ carries the definition: “a local magistrate empowered chiefly to try minor cases.” A brilliant passage tying together many themes found throughout the narrative.

BTW, when I say "we are fallen creatures" above, I'm not saying I THINK we are fallen creatures, I'm actually an atheist, but I'm saying that's what the author was going at...
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message 1: by Ðɑηηɑ (new)

Ðɑηηɑ 5 stars and "anyone with half a brain"?

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