Sunday, July 28, 2013

Waiting for the Barbarians - J M Coetzee

Every occupation has few common traits. It does not matter whether it's man versus nature, or man versus man. Once you set foot in a new land, its the struggle over the resources with the rest. The concept of co-existence is not known to us. We need complete control over the territory and all that it an bring us. Once you are in, then you set about conquering more and more, by encroaching into what belongs to the others. Every occupation, since the beginning of the world, or from when we have the documentary evidence, is followed the same pattern. The inhabitants of the land is driven away, by force ( most of the times) or by crooked action of cheating them. The indigenous population, not familiar with  the ways of the visitors, with their life style in perfect harmony with the universe, is now subjected to the new ways of the foreigner.  Every act of rebel, is quashed with force, by means of humiliation, torture and killing. The action is justified under various pretexts. Religion and God ( those who does not follow my God is a Pagan and uncultured),  education and culture or the approval of the authority ( empire). Even after many centuries, these fears continue to torment man-kind across the universe.

Waiting for the Barbarians, brings this fear into light. In an unnamed colony, the new occupants spread their holdings by expanding their territory by driving away the 'barbarians'. The imminent threat on the population of this border town, from the attack of barbarians continue to be the point of discussion. On the directive of the Empire, new forces are deployed to hunt and bring them to 'justice'. The expedition, mostly unsuccessful, manages to bring a few 'fugitives' as a catch. They are subjected to all those inhuman torture and abuse, and put in jail, until they perish.

On this small frontier town, the Magistrate, had been running the state of affairs for decades now, under the constant threat of war between the Official forces and the Barbarians. However, with the arrival of new sets of specialist officers for interrogation, His sympathy takes a turn towards those who were at the receiving end. His rescue of a violated girl, blinded by the interrogators, rejected and left for survival by her comrades, forced to live by begging in the street gets him on the wrong books of the Empire. The relation, kindled hidden desires in the old man, only to be satisfied with the local prostitute, gets into a strange affair of love ( very physical but not sexual) . Later,  under his authority and his ability, he decides to take her back to her people, travelling into their territories, meeting their leader and leaving the girl to her members of the clan. It did not take long for him to be named an enemy of the state and put under arrest and a subject to torture ( not physically, though). Under solitary confinement,  with more and more arrests and torture of the 'barbarians' , he confronts the authorities in public.

As time passes, the Empire, under the torments of waiting and their failure to capture the 'tyrants' make their retreat, leaving the town people to fend for themselves. Now back on control, the Magistrate, lead the remaining inhabitants, in their wait for the imminent attack, helpless, abandoned.

All the symbols of the colonialism is present here. The religion, the use of power, the need to exhibit control by all means. As the interrogator puts it. ''First, I get lies, you see -this is what happens - first lies, then pressure, then more lies, then more pressure, then the break, then more pressure, then the truth''.

The eternal struggle between the oppressed and the oppressor, the tense atmosphere there of ( Its the scare that is driving people and not the action) is brought out fabulously by the Nobel Laureate. The story has no specific place or time. Its universal and is beyond time and space. Its the same with man and nature/wild. The recent news about animals ( elephants / leopard) entering human settlements in Mysore, Bangalore, many parts of Kerala can be read along with this.

Coetzee, deploy some clever signals in here. The language for example is very interesting. collecting the wooden engraves of the inhabitants. the Magistrate tries to find the meaning of their words and a glimpse into their way of living. He even tries to interpret them , in his own mocking ways to the authorities, but  realises that language can be a powerful tool under occupation and he don't 'understand' his own people despite speaking the same language.

Under a fairly simple narrative, a very deep, fundamental questions on civilization. Profound and master class.

Waiting for the Barbarians ( 1980)

J M Coetzee

Vintage Books

170 Pages
Wiki Entry, NY Times, Academia.Edu,

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