Reading J.M. Coetzee's "Waiting for the Barbarians" one can not escape the
reverend precursors: Cavafy and Buzatti.
The first wrote a poem which imprinted the Barbarians for ever in the stone
of our culture. The second played magnificently with the waiting itself,
Barbarians lost the importance.
Coetzee bravely put his foot in the door, already closing, to down on us his notion
of the Barbarians. No, it is not the tribes who are to smithen us into the
dust of our cities. No, it is not the wind hurling through crumbling
pyramids, after the last of the defenders falls. Not the flames of
Alexandria Library. It is not even ourselves, barbarized and inflicting the
doom of the Empire onto ourselves.
Barbarian is the Time, Barbarian is the ossification of Evil in us,
Barbarian is the knowledge and skill, when abused. Barbarian is the
gluttony, the hedonistic, Ego of ours, fed by the blind ...stupidity. And
cruelty, born of the degeneration, brought by the luxuries of the Empire.
Through a Magistrate of the Empire outpost, a benign, slow administrator,
Coetzee shows the hopeless nature of Good when it meets the Evil. It is
overriden, raped, exorcised to the level of being laughable.
A Magistrate is not without his guilt, but he was, as all benign creatures,
just doing his job, more or less successful. He becomes problematic at the
times of trouble, when the sickly torturers of the Empire come to effect.
Coetzee's Magistrate fells prey to his humanity: he is imprisoned and
ridiculed to the death of his old himself.
There is nothing surprising in the fall of the Magistrate. Those who are
high, fall low. What is more surprising is Coetzee's creation of the
another tenure for the fallen administrator.
Was it because of his humanity, being closer to nature than stiff
brutality with which the Third Bureau treated the opponents, creating them
in the course of "investigation", rather than trying to understand them?
Brutal force never tries to understand, it seeks to break, destroy. Humanity might
fail, but if given chance, it creates hope, it does not destroy it.
What about the case when there is no chance, when humanity plainly does not
help? It is wrong to think this way: it might not help against outside enemy,
but it is in fact the last resort of a falling Empire, it establishes its
Even if it would remain only the empty letter in a chronicle,
it is worth maintaining it. Probably it goes back to Kant's "moral law in
us", which, however ancient it might seem, still prevails. Until we get
eaten for breakfast by some senseless heptapedic cosmic travellers.
Coetzee created a valuable addition to the notion of Barbarians. It is a dense read,
and I am yet to see how it withstands the battering by time, but I am, indeed, impressed by his writing skills. A master.