Sunday, September 9, 2012

Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee

We are the barbarians

I understand what they mean now when they say novelists are moral teachers. This book was a masterpiece, containing lyrical dreamlike imagery, concise beautiful prose, a sympathetic protagonist, and a moral and political lesson.

The allegorical story is about the Magistrate, who heads up a sleepy little town at the frontier of the sophisticated powerful Empire. The town lies near a vast desert and a glacier. There are guns but no internal combustion engines. However, there is humanity and its delusions, which seem to remain the same no matter how fantastical the setting. The Magistrate spends his time being an amateur archeologist and sleeping with willing young servants. One day a man with newfangled sunglasses visits - Colonel Joll. He has arrived to snuff out the incipient Barbarian rebellion. The Magistrate scoffs at his fear mongering but soon the Colonel supports his thesis by torturing some natives, some unto death. The Magistrate objects to the torture, (though not strongly enough) and becomes the fascinated patron of a Barbarian girl maimed by Colonel Joll. In the course of trying to help the girl, he is identified as a traitor by Colonel Joll. Then the Magistrate experiences degradation and understands how much protection his education and superior culture have given him.  That is, not very much.

Perhaps this anti torture novel has more relevance for the America of 2012 then the South Africa of 1980, for which it was written. That is a dreadful thing.

What is innocence?

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