08 January 2008

Book: J.M. Coetzee - Waiting for the Barbarians

J.M. Coetzee
Waiting for the Barbarians
[Vintage 2004]

This is a simple book on the surface, with more complex ideas to be mined. The style is clear and open, with some beautifully realised imagery, but it effortlessly encompasses difficult and complex ideas concerning morality, justice and the pitfalls of "civilisation".

The story is narrated by the Magistrate: a complacent, aging bureaucrat in a frontier town, who is looking forward to an easy life, but whose peace is shattered by the arrival of a Colonel from the Third Bureau who insists on capturing nomadic barbarians from the surrounding area and torturing them to extract information about possible barbarian attacks on the Empire.
There are obvious parallels with current global political situations, and what could be interpreted as references to previous regimes (eg the Third Reich and the Khmer Rouge) which show the possible consequences when states sacrifice justice and morality in favour of security.

The mark of the quality of this book is the low-key way in which these ideas are presented. They seem to occur naturally to you as you read, rather than being explicitly stated in a grand authorial polemic squeezed into the mouth of one of the characters. Many authors would not have had the self-control to avoid lengthy diatribes on such an emotive subject. Coetzee gives you the thoughts, feelings and experiences of the Magistrate and allows you to draw your own conclusions about what he witnesses and how he acts.

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