For Coetzee there are no absolute truths, but several small, big, convenient, not so convenient, approachable truths. And these seemingly approachable truths support, contradict, elevate, and undermine each other. All having their share of doubts and conflicts, further muddled by our human lives, the beliefs, the situations within. Take any fictional work of Coetzee, whenever there’s some emotion, stand, call, belief, conformation, rumination, acceptance taking form, we see a flurry of questions, doubts following it. May be this act of ripping things apart, questioning every existence is an act of laying bare the basic truth devoid of any convenient hinge, free of any so called moral malice. No doubt that he never overwhelms the readers but leaves them stoically empty.
“Waiting for the Barbarians” is a political novel telling the story of an imaginary empire which is at loggerhead with the Barbarians living at its edges. It’s an allegorical tale about the oppressor and the oppressed. And at the center there’s an old magistrate who has been silent for most of his life but is now reeling under his wreck of moral confusions and eccentricities. But this is not where Coetzee’s ambition stops. The story is also, at another level, an inquiry about pain in the most humanistic terms. He lays the question bare open at the beginning by saying, “Pain is truth; all else is subject to doubt”.
The magistrate is no critic of imperialism but like every one he has his own share of opinions and view. As he once says, “…How do you eradicate Contempt, especially when the contempt is founded on nothing more substantial than differences in table manners, variations in the structure of eyelid? Shall I tell you what I sometime wish? I wish that these barbarians should rise up and teach us a lesson, so that we would learn to respect them….”
But the Magistrate is all the more content with his peaceful lazy existence, collecting old metals which he thinks are historical remains, reading classics in the evening, or fulfilling his eccentric sexual appetites. Things slowly start changing as empire intensifies its ever-present quest against the nomads or rather the so called barbarians. One day few Barbarian captives are brought to the post and then tortured. A girl among them, whose father dies during torture, is left behind and is then taken in refuge by the magistrate. He takes that girl to his house, nurses her with all his care, cracks jokes never understood by her, broods over his actions, on the relationship he’s wishing, trying to start. Slowly moral confusions start surfacing, which later pave the way for his revolt.
Coetzee also explores how difficult it is for one human coming from a totally different reality to understand the reasons, desires, and emotions of another one coming from a starkly opposite reality. As for the Barbarian girl he says, “She adapts without complaint to the new pattern. I tell myself that she submits because of her Barbarian upbringing. But what do I know of Barbarian upbringing? What I call submission may be nothing but indifference. What does it matters to a beggar, a fatherless child whether I sleep by myself or not so long as she has a roof over her head and food in her belly…”
Later as he is imprisoned the themes of pain, revolt, freedom, struggle are explored. As the Magistrate says, “No one beats me, no one starves me, no one spits on me. How can I regard myself as a victim of persecution when my sufferings are so petty? Yet they are all the more degrading for their pettiness. I remember smiling when the door first locked behind me…It seemed no great infliction to move from the solitariness of everyday existence to the solitude of a cell when I could bring with me a world of thoughts and memories. But I begin to comprehend how rudimentary freedom is. What freedom has been left to me?……I am now no more than a pile of blood, bone, meat that is unhappy….[..]…I walked into that cell a sane man sure of his righteousness of my cause however incompetent I continue to find myself of what that cause might be. But after two months…I am much less sure of myself..what is the point of suffering when I am no iron-hand in my certainty….I am running away from the pain and death…I am simply seeking ease, if truth be told, fleeing to the only soft bed and friendly arms I have left to me….”
But this still isn’t where Coetzee stops. He probes even further, even deeper. It all becomes a harrowing quest of what it to be human when any shred of certainty leaves you, when one is felling prey to feeling one doesn’t have strength to pursue or even have clarity of, being merely a puppet of one’s own whims and eccentricities, being overtaken by events one once thought one was in control of.
In all a rewarding read, of the same league as Disgrace and Life and Times of Michael K. were.