Waiting for the Barbarians
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Set in a remote outpost of an unnamed Empire, this powerful novella could be describing events in any Empires throughout hundreds of years of human history or, as I mentioned in yesterday's Gulag 101 review, it could even be an allegorical representation of the whipped up paranoia in Britain right now. The themes of us against them, social exclusion and assumed racial superiority are frighteningly relevant despite Waiting For The Barbarians having been written nearly four decades ago.
Our narrator is the Magistrate, an anonymous older man who has spent his life on his Empire's fringes maintaining and administering the official idea of order, but mostly without infringing too deeply on the lives of the indigenous peoples, the 'barbarians', outside his town. I am reminded of Anais Mitchell's prophetic Hadestown song with The Wall here protecting Empire within itself while resolutely keeping all others Out. Trouble arrives with Colonel Joll, a new breed of Empire official who seeks evidence of a barbarian plot to overthrow the Empire. Capturing and viciously torturing local fisherfolk and nomads until they 'reveal' whatever he wants to hear, Joll leaves in his wake not a safer Empire, but angry people who may not have been enemies before, but certainly are now. The Magistrate is revolted by Joll's actions and, on finding himself left to clear up the aftermath, he slowly begins to question what he has seen and previously believed.
The gathering pace of this town's rush towards disaster has a poignantly painful inevitability about it. The townspeople, convinced of their invincibility and communally baying for revenge against imagined aggressions, are led into ever increasing paranoia by men who certainly don't have the town's best interests at heart. Any crime is now attributed to the barbarians and fear of 'what could happen if ...' is manipulated until civilians 'see' malevolent barbarians in every shadow. Unconnected peoples are swept into the category of barbarians simply for being different, losing their homes and livelihoods in the process.
Coetzee does briefly but vividly describe some tortures - there is one scene in particular which squeamish me wishes I could unread - but it is the ease and speed of the psychological manipulation which I found truly shocking. His understanding of human nature is effectively portrayed and his characters are utterly and depressingly believable. I could clearly envisage the walled town surrounded by crop fields, the wide desert with its mountain horizon, the Magistrate's cluttered office and his bare claustrophobic prison cell. I certainly think that Waiting For The Barbarians will be one of my Top Ten Reads come the end of 2016 and I wouldn't be surprised if it has not been surpassed.
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