And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.
Constantine P. Cavafy.Waiting for the Barbarians
The expeditionary force against the barbarians prepares for its campaign,
ravaging the earth, wasting our patrimony.
J.M.Coetzee. Waiting for the Barbarians
J.M. Coetzee’s book is a parable about the use of fear to control the masses. At the same time, Waiting for the Barbarians is the tale of a man who wants to decipher himself through the interpretation of his dreams and of other people.
Colonel Joll is fighting the Barbarians. Their power has been multiplied by the rumours: “The barbarian tribes were arming, the rumour went” (8), “A rumour begin to get the rounds that they are diseased” (13), “The rumour going about brigade headquarters … is that there will be a general offensive against the barbarians in the spring” (50), “Instead the air is full of anxious rumours” (123.)
Joll is the creation of an Empire that needs the fear to survive. Joll is the irrational product of an irrational fear.
It is impossible not to see an uncanny parallel between the current war on terror and Coetzee’s Empire. Like the Magistrate, people who opposed the invasion of Iraq were ridiculed. The power of these barbarians has been multiplied artificially by the Empire, to create a scenario where the population permits torture and unnecessary violence. There is no difference between the Barbarians and the Empire: “Of what use is … to raise the alarm when the criminal and the civil guard are the same people?” (123).
Another big subject of the book is the decadence. There is a permanent reference, to the cycles of nature opposed to the artificial cycles of the Empire: “For the duration of the winter the Empire is safe” (38), “How can I accept that disaster has overtaken my life when the world continues to move so tranquilly through its cycles?” (94), “Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jugged time of raise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe” (133).
The Magistrate fights his own war against aging and decadence. He discovers himself trapped in an invisible and powerful contract where he had changed his freedom for the promise of a peaceful life at the end of his life: “I have not asked for more than a quiet life in quiet times”(8), “All I want now is to live out my life in ease in a familiar world, to die in my own bed and be followed to my grave by old friends” (75).
The Magistrate is also an interpreter. One of his hobbies is to decipher the hieroglyphics on the ancient slips that he finds under the dunes. There are recurrent dreams throughout the whole book, and he tries to interpret them as if they were the clue to understanding his weaknesses, the decadence of his own desire, and his relationship with women. He knows that he is controlled by lust: “Sometimes my sex seemed to me … a stupid animal living parasitically upon me … anchored to my flesh with claws I could not detach”(45). However, the Magistrate tortures himself and not the others; he tries to live in peace with the people that he rules.
The Magistrate is a simple man. It is in his opposition to Colonel Joll, and the blindness of the Empire that he looks like a hero. He risks his life to prove himself that he is not a slave of the Empire: “I must assert my distance from Colonel Joll! … There is nothing to link me with torturers” (44), “My alliance with the guardians of the Empire is over … the bond is broken, I am a free man” (78).
The war transforms the Magistrate into a symbol against irrationality. He is the only one who seems not to be controlled by the fear of the Barbarians: “show me a Barbarian army and I will believe” (8). And he is the only one who understands the consequences of the Empire’s crimes: “ ‘When some men suffer unjustly,’ I said to myself, ‘it is the fate of those who witness their suffering to suffer the shame of it’” (139).
Waiting for the Barbarians J.M. Coetzee. Penguin Books, New York, 1980