Waiting for the Barbarians by JM Coetzee

“I should never have allowed the gates of the town to be opened to people who assert that there are higher considerations than those of decency.”

Perhaps an epitaph for our world. If you like your Kafka with a large dose of morality in it, step this way. I wonder if there has ever been a period in human history in which this little work would not have its place however particularly apt it may seem right now.

This is the third Coetzee I’ve read now and all of them are economic in terms of paper spent, this one a mere 170 pages. And yet there is nothing in the prose to indicate a miserly attitude to words or to story line. Indeed, there is much wonderment in the book.

Nor could I always see why one part of my body, with its unreasonable cravings and false promises, should be heeded over any other as a channel of desire. Sometimes my sex seemed to me another being entirely, a stupid animal living parasitically upon me, swelling and dwindling according to autonomous appetites, anchored to my flesh with claws I could not detach. Why do I have to carry you about from woman to woman, I asked: simply because you were born without legs? Would it make any difference to you if you were rooted in a cat or dog instead of in me?

Who wouldn’t like the answer to this question? At the same time, does it beg innocence when we should be conferring guilt? I think back to the movie Disgrace, the early scenes between teacher and student. Yes I must read it too! Having read Waiting for the Barbarians, I feel like maybe after all I will understand/empathise with the book in a way that I couldn’t while watching the movie. Perhaps there is no difference really between The Magistrate here and the girl in Disgrace. I’m anxious to find out now!

As we offer up our liberties, and.as Coetzee has it, our decency, in exchange – we hope – for safety, this wonderful piece on what happens when we fear our victims. Compulsory reading for 2017. Five stars.

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