Sunday, 28 August 2011

Barbarians at the Gate

Set in South Africa during the 1970s, Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) is a story of a Magistrate at a regional outpost who lives a fairly solitary, predictable life.

One day Colonel Joll arrives declaring a state of emergency because he believes the nomadic native peoples, who live in the hills outside the town, are a threat. Joll’s troops round up some of these “barbarians”, torturing them until they admit their plans to attack the frontier town. The Magistrate is convinced that the confessions are false - stemming from the horrific torture at the hands of Joll and his men.

When Joll leaves town, swearing to return with a larger force, the Magistrate nurses the torture wounds of one of the female barbarians and embarks on a relationship with her. Joll learns of this and considers the Magistrate’s actions treason. The Magistrate is incarcerated, tortured and violated in the same ways the barbarians were.

Waiting for the Barbarians is a haunting allegorical novel with strong and complex themes – colonialism, power, humanity, and the treatment of prisoners – that are explored in a simple narrative. While set in South Africa, this could take place anywhere that imperial forces have attempted to invade and subjugate the native inhabitants.

J.M. Coetzee is a brilliant writer – a Nobel laureate and Booker prize winner. His power is in his ability to write so concisely with such magically descriptive passages without resorting to sentimentality. This is thought provoking novel that will leave you pondering its themes long after you have finished reading.