Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Waiting For The Barbarians - J M Coetzee

“I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire. Is he blind? I could understand it if he wanted to hide blind eyes. But he isn’t blind. The discs are dark, they look opaque from the outside but he can see through them. He tells me they are a new invention. ‘They protect one’s eyes against the glare of the sun’, he says”...

These lines with which the narration begins set you thinking that the narrator is a humble, ignorant, innocent villager who has never seen nor heard of sunglasses and hence wonders at them. Soon, you learn he is the magistrate of a village. It is not any village but a frontier village with a remote quality and solitary air.

Beyond the frontier village, is the border region of the empire, the barrenness, where dwell the barbarians. Or so the Empire labels them. From time to time, members of this barbarious tribes – men, women, old men, children are caught straying into the boundary, sometimes doing things the Empire disallows. They are made captive and confined in a prison cell.
And then comes a Colonel from the capital and the torture begins within the cell. Sophisticated torture.
Occasionally, the tribe seizes a lone man from the village that has strayed into their territory and kills him. The hostility deepens. The Empire with its sophisticated strategy and weapons strikes back with venom and crushes the barbarians.

The magistrate who thinks the Colonel too high handed, sympathizes with the tribesmen suffering in the dark cell, silently though.

“When I see Colonel Joll again, I bring the conversation around to torture. I ask ‘what if your prisoner is telling the truth yet finds he is not believed? Is that not a terrible position? Imagine: to be prepared to yield, to yield, to have nothing more to yield, to be broken yet to be pressed to yield more! And what a responsibility for the interrogator! How would you ever know when a man has told you the truth?’ ”

Once, the magistrate, out of sympathy for a girl of the tribe who had suffered torture in the cell along with her father and had seen her father dying, tries to help the girl, by treating her wounds, feeding her and taking her back to her tribe on horseback.

He is found out. The Colonel, ruthlessly inflicts torture upon the magistrate and confines him to the wretchedness of the same cell where other prisoners were kept and tortured.

‘No matter if I told my interrogators the truth....they would press on with their grim business, for it is an article of faith with them that the last truth is told only in the last extremity...’

The Colonel ventures into the barrenness where the tribes dwell and brings back with him some tribesmen, stark naked and stringed together with a rope passing through one cheek of each one of them. He parades them for all the villagers to see and pelt stones at.

The story presents the blurring of humanitarian considerations in the wake of nationalistic feelings and shows how completely compassion and justice are obscured when an appeal is made to the nationalistic feelings of people.
Nationalism as an ideal has been disputed by many people – by Tagore, to name one. Some of the material that I have read on the subject discuss the necessity to broaden one’s horizon, to accept all that is good (regardless of the nation of its origin) and other such issues.
While such writing criticise nationalism for its narrowness and limitedness, this book screams about the shameful grossness and wretchedness of nationalism.
For this story is on the subject of enemy torture – it describes in intimate detail, the treatment meted out to those human beings – some of them women, old men and children – labelled as enemy by the State, in the name of nationalism.
It is a very serious subject and cannot but make an impact.

“What has made it impossible to live in time like fish in water, like birds in air, like children? It is the fault of empire. Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues it’s enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation...”

The story makes one think about the nations currently at war. Afghanistan, the Middle East and wherever else innocent people are being treated like worms by the enemy. It makes you think about all the medals we give out to soldiers for killing innocent people on the other side of the border. It makes you think about the true place of patriotism in our ideology.

‘Each moment, each one of us, man, woman, child, perhaps even the poor old horse turning the mill wheel, knew what was just; all creatures come into the world bringing with them the memory of justice. But we live in a world of laws, a world of the second best. There is nothing we can do about that. We are fallen creatures. All we do is to uphold the laws, all of us, without allowing the memory of justice to fade...’

The book is an eye opener – it teaches us something new most of us would not even have thought of. It makes us re-evaluate our sense/beliefs about right, wrong, about nationalism, patriotism...

Narration comes from depth and reaches the depths of the reader.

As you read through the second chapter, you are somewhat disappointed because it digresses from the expectation set by the 1st chapter.
What in the beginning promised to be a grave subject concerning nations, people, societies and civilization in general, thinned and wavered till it became a story of an individual – the magistrate, his life, especially, his sex life.

Lines from the book I liked. Read...

‘That’s an experienced not to be missed, the fishermen carry flaming torches and beat drums over the water to drive the fish towards the nets they have laid’

‘Like a wounded snail, I begin to creep along the wall’ – the simile...

‘A fool in love is always laughed at but in the end always forgiven...’

‘...those daydreams......Without exception, they are dreams of ends; dreams not of how to live but of how to die...’

‘...I was the lie that the empire tells itself when times are easy, the truth that Empire tells itself when harsh winds blow...’

‘When some men suffer unjustly, it is the fate of those who witness their suffering to suffer the shame of it...’

‘To each, his own most fitting end...’

‘To the last we will have learned nothing. In all of us, deep down, there seems to be something granite and unteachable...’

‘And who am I to jeer at life-giving illusions? Is there any better way to pass these last days than in dreaming of a saviour with a sword who will scatter the enemy hosts and forgive us the errors that have been committed by others in our name and grant us a second chance to build our earthly paradise? ...’

‘I swim through the medium of time, a medium more inert than water, without ripples, pervasive, colourless, odourless, dry as paper...’

‘The crime that is latent in us, we must inflict on ourselves, not on others...’

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