Monday, November 24, 2008

Initial Impressions on J.M. Coetzee's "Waiting for the Barbarians"

After reading Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness for a few weeks, one would generally not be extremely excited to explore yet another short colonization novel that takes place around the turn of the century; however, after only reading three chapters, I can honestly say I am surprised to find I thoroughly enjoy J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. Given the long, tedious, and often tangential narration of Conrad's novel and considering the fact the curriculum intends for us to compare the two books, I found myself not at all apprehensive about reading Coetzee's story and constantly procrastinating on the completion of the assignment. Yet, as I began reading, I honestly could not put it down. One of the first things that jumped out at me is simply the style in which Coetzee writes. Using prose, colloquial language and a vivid present tense, the style of the book's narration creates a very captivating discussion effect, as if the Magistrate is actually with you face-to-face, telling you his story. For example, in the very first paragraph of the novel, the book opens with "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 is not blind," and thus creating a clear thought dialogue that the reader instantly attaches him or herself to. In fact, this style is relatively similar to that of Marlow's narration in Conrad's book, but without the tedious and somewhat overzealous descriptions.

Furthermore, I was also drawn into the book by the magistrate's character, a quite right-minded man who to seems very sexually-focused as well. The first time we see him, we immediately notice his rather unorthodox position toward Colonel Joll's treatment of the natives. Given the fact the novel takes place around the turn of the century and that we get the impression the magistrate is white, the view he takes is extremely admirable and righteous. When Joll moves to capture as many natives as possible and torture them for answers into the whereabouts of the barbarian forces and the plans to their rumored revolution, the magistrate expresses opposition and feeds, provides doctors, and otherwise supports their well-being and ultimate return to their native lands. Yet, for reasons probably deliberately withheld from the reader, he cannot fully exercise enough power to shoot down the colonel's orders and, at least while he is there, prisoners are still taken and horrendous torture is carried out in their interrogations.

On the other hand, the magistrate also becomes an interesting character because of his intense sexual desires and his apparent love for the ex-prisoner that is now his servant. The fact that he is such an old man but is still sexually driven, sleeping with twenty-year-old girls and the native one, essentially shocks the reader, bringing him or her closer into the book with the hope of discovering more shocking details. As his makeshift love story ensues, the odd nature of it keeps us enthralled and the relative ups and downs of the relationship, from their physical break to his actually sleeping with her, helps the book to move forward fast.

In regards to the story itself, it was simply the weirdness of it that kept me reading. Its essentially a story of an old, white, and politically-powerful governor in his colonial land falling in love with a blind, tortured, and ex-captive native girl who only became the magistrate's servant because he could not have beggars on the streets. This oddly captivating story thus makes you want to continue reading in hopes of discovering anything else that adds to the unusual plot. Thus, between the ease of reading, the interesting protagonist, and the shocking plot, Waiting for the Barbarians is one book I'm very interested to continue reading to see where it leads.

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