Cave paintings at Chauvet

Werner Herzog in his beautiful documentary film “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” shows two Neolithic cave paintings that are located just feet apart on the same cave wall. They have been painted in identical style and appear as if they might have been painted by the same artist. But carbon dating has shown that they were created 5,000 years apart. From a modern perspective where paintings styles go from Modern to Postmodern in 50 years, this is difficult to grok. Herzog, in voiceover, suggests that the cave paintings show a people who lived “outside of history,” oblivious to the requirements of constant progress that drive modern civilization.

In “Waiting for the Barbarians,” J.M.Coetzee approaches a similar idea from the opposite direction. The book’s narrator writes:

Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.

The narrator is the aging magistrate of a frontier town on the remote edge of an unnamed empire. It has been a peaceful place for many years, but the secret police have now come to investigate the activities of the barbarians that live beyond the town, in the desert and mountains. The magistrate observes, “Once in every generation, without fail, there is an episode of hysteria about the barbarians.” The secret police treat the barbarians with brutality and torture, generating a cycle of conflict. The magistrate feels morally compelled to resist and eventually is accused of aiding the barbarians and subjected to torture himself.

The strength of the narrative is in the consciousness and conscience of the magistrate. The magistrate is physical (many writers tend to ignore the needs of the body, but Coetzee’s characters — in this book and others — are often dealing with physical urges and pains, aches and needs) and impetuous, but also self-aware, and even as he proceeds down the righteous path of resisting the secret police and enduring terrible pain for doing so, he is doubtful of his own motives. He suspects that he is acting from vanity, and although he despises the secret police, he worries that they and their methods may be necessary to the life of the empire that is his home and represents civilization.

The book poses questions as relevant to the American empire as any other: How does one live in an empire that engages in brutality and torture at the fringes in order to sustain itself? What is your culpability? If you feel you must resist, what is the moral way to do so? These are questions often raised by war novels, but they take a different shape here, where we can see the war itself being manufactured and the action takes place in a curious margin between the battlefield and the home front. “Waiting for the Barbarians” finally suggests no simple answers; it suggests only that no simple answers exist. And by the end of the novel the magistrate achieves something like the wisdom of the open-hearted fool who has no answers, only questions.

Coetzee was born in South Africa, and now lives in Australia. “Waiting for the Barbarians” was published in 1980. Coetzee won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.