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The barbarian captives are broken by torture and then released. One of them, however, an impassive girl with straight black eyebrows and glossy black hair, remains behind and is taken in by the Magistrate. He wants to shield and nurse her, but also perhaps to dominate her. The girl yields silently, but the Magistrate, his mind disarranged by the brutality of the Third Bureau, does not simply take her.

Waiting for the Barbarians Summary

Instead, he uses her by tending her wounds, washing her broken feet and legs, rubbing her body with almond oil. It is, seemingly, an improvised ritual of domineering guilt, the confused gesture of a confused man. THERE follows the most brilliant part of the novel, a setpiece of austere prose in which the Magistrate, troubled by his uncharted feelings about the girl, decides to take her back to her tribe. Accompanied by two soldiers and a guide, the Magistrate and the girl ride off on horseback on a dangerous journey into distant regions, an ordeal of cold, hunger and fear described with such dazzling vividness that it reminds one of certain grueling journeys in T.

Lawrence's ''Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Coetzee is still insecure in the description of inner states of being, he has become a master in the description of outer event. View all New York Times newsletters. Back home, the Magistrate is charged by the Third Bureau with treason, ''consorting with the enemy.

Waiting for the Barbarians

He is reduced, through humiliation and torment, to a subhuman level. And, as he later reflects, he learns the great lesson of the 20th century:. I wondered how much pain a plump comfortable old man would be able to endure in the name of his eccentric notions of how the Empire should conduct itself. But my torturers were not interested in degrees of pain. They were interested only in demonstrating to me what it meant to live in a body, as a body, a body which can entertain notions of justice only as long as it is whole and well, which very soon forgets them when its head is gripped and a pipe is pushed down its gullet and pints of salt water are poured into it.

They came to my cell to show me the meaning of humanity, and in the space of an hour they showed me a great deal. TO search and destroy the barbarian enemy, the Third Bureau sends troops into the land beyond the frontiers of the Empire. At first, reports of victory; then, a nervous silence; finally, the troops return, dazed and bedraggled. They lured us on and on, we could never catch them. They picked off the stragglers, they cut our horses loose in the night, they would not stand up to us! Colonel Joll and his men retreat; the Magistrate resumes his old authority.

The Empire fades; the barbarians remain. Or is it only the specter of the barbarians? The town waits, apprehensive and helpless, expecting attack. Only now, in this bitter ending, do we grasp the full force of Mr. Coetzee's title, adapted from some lines by the Greek poet Cavafy: What does this sudden uneasi ess mean, and this confusion?

Waiting for the Barbarians Study Guide

Because it is night and the barbarians have not come, and some men have arrived from the frontiers and they say that there are no barbarians any longer and now, what will become of us without barbarians? These people were a kind of solution. Coetzee has gained from his strategy of creating an imaginary Empire is clear. But are there perhaps losses too? One possible loss is the bite and pain, the urgency that a specified historical place and time may provide.

To create a ''universalized'' Empire is to court the risk - especially among sophisticated readers for whom the credos of modernism have become dull axioms -that a narrative with strong political and social references will be ''elevated'' into sterile ruminations about the human condition. As if to make clear what I'm getting at, Mr.

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Coetzee sees the heart of darkness in all societies, and gradually it becomes clear that he is not dealing in politics at all, but inquiring into the nature of the beast that lurks within each of us This is a profundity very much in the spirit of our time, but perhaps I'll be forgiven if I say that it's a shallow profundity.

Why should we suppose that it's a virtue in a novel such as ''Waiting for the Barbarians'' that it not deal ''in politics at all? Nor is politics, as Mr. Levin seems to imply, some sort of surface triviality, a mere scum on the waters of life; politics is a fundamental human activity, the way we structure our shared existence.


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To scant the politics of Mr. Coetzee's novel is to pull its teeth.

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THAT ''a heart of darkness'' is present in all societies and a beast ''lurks within each one of us'' may well be true. But such invocations of universal evil can deflect attention from the particular and at least partly remediable social wrongs Mr. Coetzee portrays. Not only deflect attention, but encourage readers, as they search for their inner beasts, to a mood of conservative acquiescence and social passivity. I cannot believe this was Mr. Coetzee's intention or, perhaps more important, that it is warranted by his novel itself.

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