IN NEARLY every way J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians is a novel beyond the ordinary, and I cannot imagine anyone reading it and remaining unmoved by its anguish and sense of futility. Memories of Kafka and Faulkner dart through Coetzee's surreal fable of racial brutality and injustice. The mood is that of Albert Camus as he examined the condition of existential man in The Stranger.
The novel takes place at a trading outpost at the farthest reaches of a state called "The Empire." There time turns slowly. Travel is by horse or carriage. Communication with the capital is by means of a thousand-mile road through mountains. Frontier guards carry muskets and sleep on duty. Illiterate natives resembling American Indians or African aborigines weave, fish, and occasionally get drunk along the banks of the great brackish lake that drifts to the edge of the village.
For around 30 years the aging magistrate who narrates Coetzee's novel has presided over the affairs of the lazy village, administering justice in a colonial spirit, sleeping with tavern maids, collecting the hieroglyphs of prehistoric lakeshore civilizations. But news of native raids on pack trains and flocks of sheep in the outlands have reached the capital, and the Third Bureau division of the Civil Guard has dispatched a senior officer to investigate banditry along the frontier.
Almost at once the magistrate finds himself in a vague state of isolation. He is wary of the austere, dandified Colonel Joll. Joll conducts himself like a foreign emissary. He insists on privacy as he employs his "set procedures" to draw truth from a boy and old man charged with participating in a barbarian raid. The boy is sick; his grandfather, ashen and exhausted.
The magistrate asks Joll what happens when a prisoner yields under torture, tells the truth, but meets disbelief. How does he recognize truth?
"A certain tone enters the voice of a man who is telling the truth," Joll says, as he describes an equation of fear, pain, and truth.
"First I get lies, you see--this is what happens--first lies, then pressure, then more lies, then more pressure, then the break, then more pressure, then the truth. That is how you get the truth."
Within three days of Joll's arrival the old man dies under torture, the battered child is pressed into service as a guide for an attack on barbarian encampments, and the Third Bureau's war of annihilation against the native people of the Empire has started.
More barbarian prisoners, thin steel wires threaded through their hands and cheeks to keep them in line, are herded back to the village where they are tortured into confessing the conspiracy against the Empire that Joll has imagined. The village commons becomes a field of broken human beings. The granary turns into a circle of hell in which children are violated as their parents watch and fathers are scarified before their children's eyes.
Witnessing this barbarism of the civilized and feeling his own humanity altered by the experience in some unutterable way, the magistrate withdraws into a constricted but different version of himself. He seems to invent a new personality without understanding why. This is the most haunting subject that Coetzee's novel lays before us. Violence and animalism are contagious. Everyone is changed by the virus, often in different ways, but always to worse effect.
The novel abounds in possibilities for moral investigation and religious analogy.
The magistrate's years of venality have left him feeble against the assertions of evil power, and Coetzee suggests that ethical weakness saps the flesh as well as the spirit. The magistrate is not only impotent against Joll. He is also sexually impotent. When he takes in a barbarian girl left with broken feet and seared eyes by Joll and his torturers, the magistrate simply lies beside her.
In one of several glances towards the Gospels of the New Testament, Coetzee leads the magistrate to enact his own rites of penance and purification while the Imperial Guard conducts its forays into the bush. The magistrate repeatedly washes the girl's feet and bathes her body in oil. As charity turns to love, the magistrate trips over the serpent of racism. He pleads with her to explain how he could not have seen her among the prisoners or in the granary torture chamber. (The answer, which she never speaks, is that the magistrate himself was blind; she existed only as a colored barbarian.)
Because Coetzee's novel defines behavior in terms of existential reality, it moves tentatively and conditionally, and most often in the direction of irony and ambiguity. Only as he nears the end of a horrifying journey to return the girl to her tribesmen in the wasteland does the magistrate learn to make love to her. Suddenly at the moment he repatriates her, the magistrate wants her back. Upon his return to the village, his act of compassion becomes evidence of treason. Civil authority is reversed into military crime. The magistrate himself--perhaps the only remaining civilized human being in the village--is reduced by torture to a groveling and bleeding heap.
"Let it at the very least be said," the ravaged magistrate tells himself, "that in this farthest outpost of the Empire of light there existed one man who in his heart was not a barbarian."
But morality is neither formula nor reflex for Coetzee. His magistrate is modern man in search of conscience:
"Do I really look forward to the triumph of the barbarian way: intellectual torpor, slovenliness, tolerance of disease and death? If we were to disappear would the barbarians spend the afternoons excavating our ruins? . . . Is my indignation at the course that empire takes anything more than the peevishness of an old man who does not want the ease of his last years on the frontier to be disturbed?"
And, of course, he is modern man morally wounded and left helpless by the political society he has created.
Wandering through the village of ashes left by the defeated and retreating Civil Guard, the magistrate, a beggar and cripple at the end, confronts his deepest loss under torture, his ability to reason. He feels shame and doesn't know why. He has lived through a year of terror "yet (I) understand no more of it than a babe in arms." His primacy--man's primacy--among creatures has been destroyed: "There has been something staring me in the face, and still I do not see it."
The intelligence Coetzee brings us in Waiting for the Barbarians comes straight from Scripture and Dostoevsky: We possess the devil. We are all barbarians.
The terror and emptiness belong to the 20th century. Coetzee, who teaches and writes in South Africa, has found us alive but sick in the soul.