Introduction: Who-Is-the-Barbarian Dilemma
The idea of a civilized nation conquering the savages and blurring the line between war and slaughter in the process is far from being new; as a matter of fact, it has nearly worn out its welcome, with its on-the-nose messages and the obvious moral. In an Empire where the colonists have taken over, which is an obvious reference to a historical event (Poyner 101), people are desperately trying to restore justice and make the invaders leave – with little success, though.
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As a result, the war between the “guerillas” and the colonists ensues, with dramatic consequences for the natives. The novel could have made it for a basic book about the conflict between the savages and the “civilized savages” (O’Neill 240), but for one significant detail – Coetzee not only describes the scenes of torture with great detail, but also offers colonel Joll’s explanations about why these tortures should be brought upon the native people, often making the reader face a moral dilemma.
The Torture of the Barbarian Girl: A Slap in the Face of Humanity
The idea of beating a woman, worse yet – a child, seems completely deprived of humanity. However, colonel Joll has an excuse for this crime. The explanation is simple – the child is a spawn of the enemy and, therefore, does not deserve to live:
The Colonel steps forward. Stooping over each prisoner in turn he rubs a handful of dust into his naked back and writes a word with a stick of charcoal. I read the words upside down: /ENEMY… ENEMY… ENEMY… ENEMY /He steps back and folds his hands. At a distance of no more than twenty paces he and I contemplate each other. (Coetzee)
One of the first instances of cruelty towards the natives, the given scene is the most graphic example of the insanity that gripped the empire and its colonists.
The War Against the Barbarians: Causing Pain and Destruction
Another example of the monstrous ways in which the Empire handled the native dwellers is mentioned in every single scene of battle with the barbarians.
In fact, the whole war with the natives seems a huge allegory for one of those mass homicides that the history of the world is filled with, starting with the infamous extermination of the Native Americans to the horrors of the WWII. Portraying the dreadful ways in which Colonel Joll and the citizens of the Empire slaughtered, Coetzee makes it clear that the violence of the citizens is explained with the help of an only-the-strong-survives principle.
To make the matter worse, the citizens, along with Colonel Joll, are often concerned with the materialist rewards. They clearly not simply destroy for the sake of destroying it; the key problem with the “colonists” and the natives is that the former cannot comprehend the culture of the latter – or, for that matter, do not want to – and, therefore, not being able to see any intrinsic value in it, see no reasons to preserve it.
That said, the key justification of violence in the novel is the fact that hardly anyone cares about what happens to the native people, or what culture these native people represent.
The Protest and the Incarceration of the Magistrate: Having Power, Lacking Wisdom
The final chip in the portrait of the “civilized” citizens of the Empire, the process of the Magistrate incarceration, does not seem to add much to the portrayal of the tortures; however, it adds a lot to the portrayal of the citizens of the Empire in general and Colonel Joll in particular. Even when the scene of torture has not started yet and there are only indications of it approaching, one can feel the painfully obvious image of the “civilization” as the epitome of evil popping up in front of the reader:
Perhaps when I stand on the floor of the courthouse, if that is what it is, I stand over the head of a magistrate like myself, another grey-haired servant of Empire who fell in the arena of his authority, face to face at last with the barbarian. (Coetzee)
Therefore, the explanation of torturous treatment of every single native citizen in general and the Magistrate in particular is that the natives are savages and, thus, do not deserve any better. Like many other pretexts for being violent, however, this argument does not hold any water. Defying the developing of the “savages,” Colonel Joll and every other colonist falls to the lowest of the low compared to any native dweller of the Empire (Bradshaw and Neil 178).
When the Ends Do not Justify the Means: Torture as a Power Tool Banned from Using
To the credit of the “civilization,” one must admit that the concept of tortures did not appear out of nowhere; in fact, it must have been based on cold calculations and offered as a reasonable solution of the existing problem.
It is necessary to admit that in the times when the events in the novel took place, the idea of imprisoning the captives was unpopular, since the state was supposed to provide the resources for the prisoners to live: “‘We do not have facilities for prisoners,’ I explain” (Coetzee). Therefore, logically, it was much easier to get rid of the prisoners after the valuable information has been obtained. The above-mentioned fact, however, does not justify the cruelty that took place as the war against the barbarians unwrapped.
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In addition, Coetzee mentions that the natives also use dishonest means to fight back. As the colonel mentions, “We discuss the barbarians and their treachery. They never stand up and fight, he says: their way is to creep up behind you and stick a knife in your back” (Coetzee). The given argument might seem a legitimate point unless the Colonel had not mentioned above that the natives were almost defeated, and that the few people who still found the will to fight back formed guerilla groups to withstand the attacks of the enemy.
Conclusion: Barbarians vs. Civilization. Offering an Honest Portrayal of the Epoch
One of the most hideous inventions of the human race, torture must never be the answer to whatever the opponent resorts to. Fighting one’s own battles in an honest and open way is one of the few means to retain one’s dignity in a battlefield, and, despite all the attempts of the characters in Coetzee’s book to convince the readers that they are, the tortures of the natives drive Colonel Joll and his people’s attempts to nil. One of the basic assets of the human race, being humane is the primary law that everyone’s actions must be guided by in any circumstances, and war is no exception.
Bradshaw, Graham and Michael Neil. J. M. Coetzee’s Austerities. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2013. Print.
Coetzee, John Maxwell. Waiting for the Barbarians. 1980. Web.
O’Neill, Patrick M. Great World Writers: Twentieth Century. Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish, 2004. Print.
Poyner, Jane. J. M. Coetzee and the Idea of the Public Intellectual. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2006. Print.