Waiting for the Barbarians.

I’d sort of avoided J.M. Coetzee for a while, given his reputation for dark, depressing themes; one of his two Booker Prize-winning novels, Disgrace, involves rape as a significant plot point more than once in the book. I was in a used book store in Manhattan in June, however, and saw Waiting for the Barbarians, which made the Guardian‘s list of the 100 greatest novels ever written, on the shelf for a few bucks, and figured at 156 pages it would at least be over quickly if I hated it – and maybe it would surprise me. I can’t see it as a top 100 all-time novel, but I got more out of the book than I expected, as it’s a fable that seems to combine some of the best of Italo Calvino and Kazuo Ishiguro (the latter of whom won the Nobel Prize for Literature, as did Coetzee), in a work that I’d call the better Darkness at Noon.

The story is set in an unnamed frontier town at the edge of the Empire, where the main character, the Magistrate, has served his country for some years when a Colonel arrives and “interrogates” some prisoners, including a father and son, about the activities of nearby barbarians who might threaten the town or the Empire itself. The Magistrate is dubious about the actual level of the threat, and is disgusted by the Colonel’s use of torture, which kills one of the prisoners and leads to questionable answers – likely the ones that the Colonel wanted anyway to justify a military effort against the barbarians. When the first effort yields a new set of prisoners, who are further tortured, the Magistrate takes pity on one woman among them who’s been blinded by the Colonel’s men. This decision and a journey to eventually return her to her people pits the Magistrate against the Colonel, who declares him a traitor and makes him a political prisoner and pariah in his own town.

Waiting for the Barbarians was first published in October of 1980, winning the James Tait Memorial Prize for that year, but it certainly seems to presage the United States’ two invasions of Iraq (1991 and 2003), especially the latter which, as we now know, was predicated on questionable intelligence about the Iraqi regime’s possession of or attempts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Coetzee’s use of nameless towns and characters only emphasizes its fabulist, universal nature; he’s discussing core features of leaders who operate without viable opposition and exposing how functionaries may work to provide the answers desired by their superiors rather than the correct or just ones. Coetzee exposes the worst of humanity here, but it’s all well-grounded in actual events that preceded the book’s writing, in dictatorships and democracies.

I read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, considered one of the peak novels of anti-communist literature, back in 2008, but couldn’t connect with any of the characters and found the narrative to be distant and cold. Coetzee infuses the Magistrate with more complexity; he’s flawed, a little bigoted, or at least mistrustful, but also highly empathetic, and less disdainful of women than the government officials or soldiers who come to the village and do as they please. The submissive response of the residents of the town, who seemed to respect the Magistrate until the Empire turned on him and labeled him a traitor, mirrors the inaction of many residents of past aggressors, including the Axis powers of World War II, who stood by while their neighbors were arrested, tortured, or murdered. The Magistrate seems to hope that if he stands up for what he believes to be just, others will support him; instead, people he thought were his friends act as if he’s not even there, until later in the novel when the tides shift the other way again and it’s safer to come out on his side.

This is a very grim worldview, but it’s an accurate one, and the 37 years since the book’s publication haven’t dulled its (deckled) edges one iota. Leaders continue to provoke conflicts and pursue wars on spurious grounds to distract their citizens or stage some patriotism theater. Had Coetzee made the Magistrate more of a one-dimensional martyr, it would have come at a great cost to the story’s staying power, but because his protagonist is so thoroughly human, it seems like a story that, while depressingly real, will have staying power for decades to come.

Next up: Angela Carter’s Wise Children, also on that Guardian list.