I have been meaning to read Waiting for the Barbarians for some time. J.M. Coetzee, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, has written many novels and literary essays, including Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello. Barbarians is a dark, dense and intense read. Coetzee is a master at portraying his character’s mental state, feelings of delusion, isolation and crisis of conscience as his world falls apart.
The magistrate has been loyal to the Empire for years, managing the affairs of a small frontier community, living a pleasant isolated life and ignoring the threat of war with the Barbarians. When the Empire decides that war is imminent they sends a new officer to the town. He begins arresting and interrogating the Barbarians and the Magistrate witnesses the cruel and unjust treatment of these prisoners of war. The story is dreamlike, the magistrate constantly questions what is going on around him and tries to distance himself from it. In the end he can no longer avoid his own conscience. We see this happening in his thoughts. He finds himself committing acts of rebellion and ends up as an enemy of the state.
from page 21: But it is the knowledge of how contingent my unease is, how dependent on a baby that wails beneath my window one day and not the next, that brings the worst shame to me, the greatest indifference to annihilation. I know somewhat too much; and from this knowledge, once one has been infected, there seems to be no recovery.
I enjoyed this book, even though it was difficult to read. It is a novel about politics, power and injustice. It is about war and the consequences of war. It could be taking place on any continent at any time. It is extremely relevant for our time.