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"Forgive me if the question seems impudent, but I would like to ask: How do you find it possible to eat afterwards, after you have been ... working with people? That is a question I have always asked myself about executioners and other such people. I have imagined that one would want to wash one's hands. But no ordinary washing would be enough, one would require priestly intervention, a ceremonial of cleansing, don't you think? Some kind of purging of one's soul too – that is how I have imagined it. Otherwise how would it be possible to return to everyday life – to sit down at table, for instance, and break bread with one's family and one's comrades?"

He turns away but with one slow, claw-like hand I manage to catch his arm. "No, listen!" I say. "Do not misunderstand me, I am not blaming you or accusing you, I am long past that. Remember, I too have devoted a life to the law, I know its processes, I know that the workings of justice are often obscure. I am only trying to understand. I am trying to understand the zone in which you live. I am trying to imagine how you breathe and eat and live from day to day. But I cannot! That is what troubles me. If I were he, I say to myself, my hands would feel so dirty that it would choke me – "

He wrenches himself free and hits me so hard in the chest that I gasp and stumble backwards. "You Bastard!" he shouts. "You fucking old lunatic! Get out! Go and die somewhere!"

Waiting for the barbarians is a novel by J. M. Coetzee. It was first published in 1980, and has an ISBN number of 0 7493 9420 X.

Waiting for the barbarians won prizes in South Africa, The Geoffrey Farber Memorial Prize, The James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the CNA prize. J. M. Coetzee went on to win the Booker prize for Life and times of Michael K in 1983 and for Disgrace in 1999. Of these, Waiting for the barbarians is my favourite - it apeals to me as a Sci-Fi/Fantasy reader.

It is a short book, at 170 smallish pages. It is interesting because of its generic nature. It is deliberately set in a non-specific place and time. The prose is straighforward, even simple, but the meaning is sharp and delicate. The events are at times farcial yet believable.

Stylistically it is like few other books. Besides Mr Coetzee 's other books, Iain Banks's A song of stone and Albert Camus The Stranger are the two similar books that I have encountered.

The story is allegory, concerning the barbarism of civilisation. It is speculated that Coetzee deliberately wrote in this manner to allow his work to be published without running afoul of the Apartheid state's censorship laws. His previous book In the heart of the country was embargoed, but Waiting for the barbarians escaped. It is notable that when censorship was removed, Coetzee wrote novels recognisably set in South Africa (Age of Iron, 1990; Disgrace, 1999) with the same conflicts and dilemmas.

Spoilers ahead: some characters and plot are discussed, but not outcomes. It's not that kind of book anyway.

The narrator is never even named, he is simply "The magistrate" who administers a similarly nameless town of 3 000 people, a frontier outpost of "The Empire", beyond which lie "The barbarians", horse-nomads. He is content to watch the seasons turn in this rural environment, he is in his own opinion a just and fair man. He respects both the barbarians and his own people. His only weaknesses seem to be compassion, lack of ambition and lusts for younger women. See also Disgrace for another J. M. Coetzee novel where an old man is brought low by his desire for a young woman.

Into the magistrate's calm, repetitive time comes a change, represented by Colonel Joll in sunglasses arriving at the start of the book: "I have never seen anything like it" is the opening sentence.

Colonel Joll is a policeman and a torturer, and he arrives with orders to quell a supposed coming barbarian attack. The magistrate and the town was not aware of this trouble, but after Colonel Joll starts his cross-border raids, there is trouble enough.

Which of the two of them is the truer representative of the empire? Which is its soul, which is merely holding the fort for the other? What is the responsibility of a self-proclaimed just man when his own state is being barbarous, and what are the consequences to himself? These questions are sharp and uncomfortable, and we are not spared the details.

Though the setting is deliberately vague, there are reasons to believe that is is modelled on ancient Chinese empires.
The barbarians are nomads who ride horses, as in China.
The capitol of the empire is to the South and East, with a desert frontier to the North-west.
The magistrate discusses the differences between the citizens of the empire and the barbarians: nothing more substantial than differences in table manners, variations in structure of the eyelid This strongly suggests an oriental milieu rather than an African colonial one.

However the political structures (and apparently the details of tortures) seem modelled on 1980s South Africa.


Sources:
Waiting for the Barbarians
Article in Cape Town Sunday Times, February 16 2003 about censorship of J.M Coetzee's novels.