Friday, July 20, 2018

BOOK: J. M. Coetzee, "Waiting for the Barbarians"

J. M. Coetzee: Waiting for the Barbarians. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1999 (first published in 1980). 0140283358. 152 pp.

This book is another welcome piece of evidence for my old theory that Nobel laureates write surprisingly good books. I had heard of Coetzee before but hadn't really been planning to read any of his books; I heard of this short novel of his, first published in 1980, very recently and purely by chance. I was looking for something about Sven Hedin, the famous Swedish explorer of Central Asia from the late 19th and early 20th century, and came across a very interesting article (H. Wittenbert, K. Highman: “Sven Hedin's ‘vanished country’: Setting and history in J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians”; link 1, link 2) about Hedin's influence on the setting of Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. Although Coetzee's book is deliberately vague about where and when exactly it's taking place, apparently he took a lot of inspiration from Hedin's (and other explorers') descriptions of certain areas of Central Asia, especially of the long-ruined city of Lou-lan that Hedin discovered in 1901 near the lake of Lop Nor. At the same time, I guess that another major inspiration for the novel was the way the South African authorities treated the blacks under the apartheid system.

<spoiler warning>

The story is told by a first-person narrator, who like most characters in the story remains unnamed. He used to be the magistrate, i.e. the head of the civil administration, of a small town at the very edges of some unnamed Empire. It used to be quite an idyllic existence — a sleepy, peaceful place (it didn't even have a prison), with not too much work for an administrator like him, so he could spend plenty of time on visiting friends, mistresses (he is an older man and a widower, and doesn't seem to have any children), and on his various hobbies such as hunting, reading “the classics”, and antiquarianism — he likes to conduct excavations in the nearby ruins of an ancient city, and occasionally tries to decipher the inscriptions he found there. (This is probably the point where Coetzee was the most directly influenced by Hedin's discoveries. There is also the more general environmental influence: the area where the story is set seems to be relatively dry, though the settlement itself is in something of an oasis; there are cold winters and hot summers. A “tiger rampant” is mentioned at one point among the symbols of the Empire, which is more or less the only thing specifically linking it to an Asian setting. One thing which somewhat surprised me is that the characters use firearms (of a relatively primitive sort), which felt almost anachronistic since everything else in the novel looks like it could easily have taken place at least two thousand years ago.)

Theoretically, the Empire ends there and beyond it there are barbarians, but they are far from being dangerous raging hordes. They are in fact only small harmless groups of nomads, who trade with the Magistrate's settlement often, invariably get stiffed in the process by the locals who hate them, and yet the never cause any real trouble.

The novel opens at a point when this peaceful existence is coming to an end. Supposedly a major barbarian invasion is looming, and on the basis of this claim some sort of emergency measures have been imposed in the Empire, most of the usual process of law has been suspended and a sort of gestapo-like police organization called the ‘Third Bureau’ is now basically running around with unlimited powers. At the start of the novel, a group of Third Bureau men led by a Colonel Joll has arrived at the Magistrate's settlement, supposedly to investigate the barbarian situation with a view to preparing a subsequent military campaign against them. Joll et al. are invariably grotesquely sadistic and arrogant, their methods of investigation consist more or less entirely of torture and over-the-top brutality, and it soon becomes obvious that far from protecting the Empire from the barbarian threat, they are in fact making the situation worse.

Joll arrests a few barbarians who happen to have been in the vicinity at the time, and tortures them mercilessly to get them to disclose their (obviously non-existent) invasion plans. Naturally, this sort of treatment can only make the barbarians more likely to turn hostile, rather than less. After Joll returns back to the capital to prepare the next phases of the anti-barbarian campaign, it's left to the Magistrate to try picking up the pieces and mending the relations with the barbarians again — after all, it's he and his fellow townspeople that have to actually live next to them.

The Magistrate even takes in a young barbarian woman that has been lamed and partly blinded by Joll and his torturers. Their relationship can, I guess, best be described the way they say on facebook — ‘it's complicated’. At times he treats her as his mistress, at times he just wants to help her recover, and much of the time he himself doesn't seem to be quite sure what he expects from his relationship with her. The novel spends quite a lot of time on these things, which I think goes to show that it's serious literature and not merely an entertaining genre novel. No doubt this is very good stuff for the right sort of readers, but for myself I didn't quite know what to do with most of the Magistrate's internal ruminations on this subject. Fortunately the writer knows how to dose them in moderate quantities so they never get tedious.

After a good few months, perhaps almost a year, the Magistrate decides to take the young woman back to the nearest barbarian encampment, so that she can decide if she wants to stay there (and they can hopefully help her get back to her family) or return to the settlement with him (though it seems that he is growing a bit bored with her). She decides to stay with the barbarians, and when the Magistrate returns to the settlement — the whole journey took a couple of weeks at least — it turns out that things have changed dramatically in his absence. Joll's goons are back in town and they arrest the Magistrate on the suspicion that the purpose of his trip was really to warn the barbarians of the impending large-scale military campaign against them. It is of course easy for them to torture people into providing all sorts of incriminating testimony against the Magistrate, much of it blatantly false, some of it perhaps fueled by honest resentments about his close relationship with the young barbarian woman (and claims that he had been neglecting his administrative work because of her).

The Magistrate demands a trial, but they have no interest in that. They do in fact at times conduct trials of the cangaroo-court type, but under their emergency powers they don't even have to do that, and they simply keep the Magistrate in prison and torture him regularly, presumably for no other reason than that they are evil and that they figure it's the best way to assert their power. This part of the story felt rather nauseating at times, so I think the author did a very good job at conveying how repugnant their behaviour is. I was reminded a little of Orwell here — the purpose of torture is torture, the boot stomping on a human face, etc.

Joll himself is actually away campaigning most of this time, and it's an underling of his named Mandel that runs things is absence. This is in fact one of the very few named characters besides Joll in this book, and I was somewhat surprised by the choice of name. “Joll” sounds vague and nondescript and could be from many parts of the world, but “Mandel” strikes me as distinctly Jewish, which seemed to me to be a somewhat odd choice given the setting of the novel.

As the whole story is told from the Magistrate's first-person perspective, we tend not to hear much about things that he didn't know himself. The details of the campaign against the barbarians are unclear, but evidently it isn't going well. Either a serious barbarian invasion force must have existed to begin with, or (more likely in my opinion) the brutality of Joll and the likes of him must have provoked the barbarians into a serious opposition. Still, we see very little of this supposed formidable barbarian force here. At one point Joll rolls into the town with a dozen wretched barbarian prisoners, and we cannot help realizing that, even if a real barbarian army exists somewhere out there, these people obviously cannot have anything to do with it. They must have been some unfortunates who were in the wrong place at the wrong time and whom he arrested simply as a way to cover up the failures of his campaign. Joll's men proceed to flog the prisoners brutally in the public square (makes you wonder who's the real barbarian here), to much delight of the assembled civilian population, except for the Magistrate, who tries to protest loudly, only to get badly beaten up himself by Joll's goons.

After a while, Mandel releases the Magistrate, perhaps because he figures that at this point this is the best way to continue demonstrating the Third Bureau's power: they are so powerful and the Magistrate so weak that they can afford to let him roam around freely, as a homeless beggar. He slowly re-establishes contact with old acquaintances and finds that people have a good deal of sympathy for him, and dislike for Joll's men, but of course everyone tries to keep their heads down most of the time.

As rumours of the disastrous failure of the anti-barbarian campaign mount up, morale in the settlement grows worse, more and more people leave for the interior of the Empire in search of safety, and Mandel's garrison treats the remaining civilians increasingly badly. The settlement is slowly losing not only its population but also the societal structures that enabled it to function as a town at all. The inn shuts down, the school shuts down, etc. Eventually the garrison leaves as well, ostensibly as a temporary measure, but it's clear to everyone that the Empire is abandoning the settlement due to its inability to defend it. A little later Joll and the tattered remnants of his forces pass through the town as well, in a further proof that their campaign must have ended in disaster. The townsfolk are now left to their own devices, trying to make it through the next winter, cope with the loss of population, carry on farming despite the ever-present barbarian threat, etc. The Magistrate informally takes lead of many of these efforts, thus slipping into something resembling his old role again.

The novel ends before we could see how things will really turn out. Will a large barbarian force eventually turn up and wipe out the town in an orgy of fire and blood? Or has it all been a giant phantasmagoria and will the frontier go back to its sleepy, peaceful days now that the Third Bureau troublemakers are gone? Will the town be able to recover from the loss of population and environmental devastation (the barbarians have flooded some areas by messing with irrigation systems, and Joll's soldiers have burned down other areas ostensibly because they could provide cover to barbarian guerillas)? Or will it enter into a slow (or not so slow) decline and soon turn into a ruin not unlike the one that the Magistrate has had so much fun excavating in the happier days of peace? The last scene is on a sort of life-goes-on note: the magistrate passes by a group of children that are making a snowman.

</spoiler warning>

I really enjoyed this novel, except, as I already mentioned above, for the torture parts, which made me queasy. It raises many interesting questions about civilisation, imperialism, even environmentalism. The settlement in which most of the story takes place was built up by the Empire about a hundred years ago, on land where formerly the barbarian nomads used to graze their herds. It's a story as old as farming (so about ten thousand years) — farmers pushing pastoralists out of their lands. It's despicable, but you can't help feeling a hypocrite for condemning it, since the vast majority of humankind nowadays lives in civilizations based on farming rather than nomadic animal husbandry. Apart from this ‘original sin’, as it were, the townsfolk don't seem like a particularly bad sort, and the Magistrate's description of life in the old days of peace and prosperity seems fairly idyllic, which makes it hard to see the setting up of a town like that as wholly bad. But that's precisely what makes civilization so insidious, of course; its good sides are just attractive enough to easily lure us into excusing the abuse and injustice that inevitably lies at its foundation.

There's an interesting environmental aspect to the story as well, although it doesn't have such a prominent part in it. The settlers have built irrigation systems to support their farming, and this perhaps draws more water than the environment can provide: the water in a nearby lake is turning more and more salty — which is beginning to reach the point where fishing will soon be impossible — and the Magistrate himself observes that sooner or later farming may become impossible as well, and the settlement may have to be abandoned. He points out that the barbarians haven't forgotten that it is a relatively recent establishment, and you can sense that they are hanging around waiting for the settlement to fail due to an ecological disaster so they can go back to grazing their herds in the area again. I imagine the author was inspired partly by actual historical examples of abandoned cities, such as the one near Lop Nor mentioned above, and partly by environmental concerns in his own time (1970s) and place (Africa).

Another intriguing topic that the novel explores is the relationship between the centre and the periphery. The novel here consistently takes place at the very edge of the Empire, and seen from this perspective it almost makes you wonder whether there's any point to the centre even existing at all. There are many vague references to the capital of the Empire, and the Magistrate seems to have lived there himself earlier in his career, but now there's nothing but trouble coming out of there — absurd, dangerous decisions such as the one to impose emergency measures, to let the Third Bureau run rampant, to organize a supposed anti-barbarian campaign even though it is plainly obvious (to people such as the Magistrate, who lives on the periphery himself and thus knows the situation there) that no barbarian invasion is looming (and it must have either been a terrible mistake by short-signed, ignorant leadership in the capital, or a cynical fabrication set up by the Third Bureau itself so they would have an excuse to seize power). The Magistrate himself says clearly enough on a number of occasions that nothing would suit him and his fellow townsfolk better than if the Empire and its capital simply forgot about them and let them keep on living their peaceful, sleepy existence as heretofore.

It's a very alluring idea, though of course one cannot help also being aware of its possible downsides (which the Magistrate doesn't say anything about). Suppose you were to radically decentralize the Empire so that each little settlement (such as the one where this novel takes place) becomes completely autonomous. Would this usher in an era of peace and prosperity, or one of constant internecine warfare? (We all know about endlessly squabbling city-states from various periods of history and various parts of the world, after all.) And then there's trade — a part, at least, of the prosperity of the settlement surely relies on trade with the rest of the Empire; with the Empire gone, wouldn't such long-distance trade links wither and die, leading to a slow decline in the standards of living and indeed in the level of civilization itself? (Isn't this exactly what happened in the (western parts of the) Roman Empire in the late antiquity?) If each settlement were left entirely to its own devices, couldn't the barbarians easily crush them one by one? And in general you need a certain level of population to maintain a certain level of civilization. Could sufficiently wise administrators with a sufficiently broad outlook, such as the Magistrate of this story, be brought up and trained in his tiny frontier settlement? Would the classics that he likes to read be likely to have been written (or even just copied) in it? Or were all these things available only because the settlement was part of a larger political and civilizational unit?

I don't pretend to have a good answer to any of this, of course, and I doubt that the novel would claim to have any answers either. I suppose that, as with many other political questions, there is no simple and elegant solution. Different problems might call for different degrees of integration or decentralization. It's something that people have been grappling with throughout history. Personally I'm afraid that the pressure of economic forces nowadays is pushing us too far in the direction of integration, but then allowing local forces to run rampant in the name of decentralization has its own fair share of problems as well.

Frankly, I think the biggest problem with the Empire in this novel is its willingness to impose emergency measures. This is where all the trouble in this novel starts from. We don't really learn anything much about the politics of the Empire, so it's hard to say what other problems it might have; but we know from history — or, indeed, the present — that republics and more or less democratic countries can also easily fall to the allure of emergency measures. Seriously, if I was every called upon to write the constitution of a country, I think I would insert something like this after every other paragraph: “Oh, and by the way, there will be no emergency measures in this country. Not even if you call them something else. Not even if you think you have an excellent excuse for this. Not even if there are actual physical barbarians running through your parliament building right now and stabbing the deputies with swords while they are trying to carry on with regular parliamentary procedures — no, not even then. In fact, especially not then. No emergency measures for you, full stop. Because fuck you and your poorly-concealed totalitarian impulses, that's why.”

Another question, which is really quite independent of whether your country is an empire or something more democratic, is that of interactions between groups of people at vastly different levels of civilization. If, instead of the tattered bands of barbarian wretches, the Empire in this story were facing another similar empire at the same level of development, they would either have to treat each other roughly as equals in order to trade peacefully, or they would have to go to a real war, a total war that really affects the whole country, and not one of these despicable colonial border skirmishes where the imperialists have a jolly good time brutalizing the vastly smaller, weaker, technologically and organizationally inferior natives. There would be much less room in that kind of world for small-minded sadists like Joll and his cheap acts of torture against hapless random civilians. In any case, in my ideal world, people would simply leave other civilizations alone if there was a mismatch in the level of development. Dealing with a civilization far below yours cannot possibly avoid hurting them, so it would be best to just leave them alone and they will eventually develop on their own terms, if they feel inclined to do so.

That being said, it was in fact very nice to see that the conflict between the Empire and the barbarians in this novel actually ends with a victory for the barbarians. I was a bit surprised by that, but perhaps it is simply informed by the author's experiences. After all, the nineteenth century, when the European colonialists scrambled for Africa and easily lorded it over primitive native tribes, was long gone by the time this story was written; the recent and formative experience for the author must have been the period of decolonization in the mid-20th century, when Empires were collapsing and retreating almost everywhere. The few efforts to prolong this sort of imperialism beyond its alotted historical period simply led to worse and worse forms of abuse and torture, which I guess the author had plenty of opportunity to observe first-hand in apartheid-era South Africa.

Apart from these big political and historical questions, there is also another, more personal side to the novel. The Magistrate is grappling with his relations to women, his growing old, his declining libido, his efforts to understand how people like Joll and Mandel can live with themselves, how the masses of the people can remain silent in the face of their actions and thus in a sense become complicit in them, etc. I'm not really equipped to comment on any of these things, so I'll just content myself with noting that they feature prominently in the novel and will no doubt be appreciated by people who can appreciate this sort of things.

All in all, this was a delightful, if at times very uncomfortable, novel, hard to put down, and I particularly liked the random, serendipitous way in which I had come across it. I wonder how many more gems like this are waiting to be discovered in places where I would never think to look for them because I tend to avoid the work of modern serious authors for the simple reason that most of it is incomprehensible (and hence boring) to me. I can only hope for other such lucky encounters in the future.

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