Waiting for the Barbarians - Tidbit 8: The Characters

Waiting for the Barbarians by ‎J.M. Coetzee

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Waiting for the Barbarians - Tidbit 8: The Characters

Unread postby fireflydances » Thu Aug 08, 2019 5:20 pm

Image
Ait Benhaddou, Morocco


The Characters


Because not everyone has read the book, I thought it might be interesting to devote a tidbit to characters from the story, and several of their more telling scenes. We don’t know how closely the Guerra film will stay to the book, so I can’t promise that the characters I describe here will be the same of the screen. If nothing else I think having a deeper insight into character will add depth to the movie we see.

Note: The format is a little unusual, featuring a combination of my words and Coetzee’s words. When the words are mine, they are off-set. Direct quotes from Coetzee are acknowledged as such; dialogue has appropriate apostrophes. At times there is extensive text between one Coetzee section and another. My desire was to capture just enough to give you a fuller sense of the story.

The photos are all from Ouazazate -- also called “Morocco’s Little Hollywood -- one of the film locations for the movie.



The Magistrate


He is the story’s narrator. We see everything through his eyes, and for this reason we receive so much more from him than we do from any other character. He has been stationed at a remote government outpost for decades-- ‘a gray haired servant of the empire’ -- lightly guiding the life of the outpost and the indigenous peoples who come and go. A peaceful if sleepy life. The landscape around the outpost is semi-arid: a flat sandy landscape encroached upon by dune. The winds blow in every season. The magistrate enjoys digging into the dunes to excavate ancient ruins -- public buildings or temples and houses barren of furniture. One prize: ‘a heavy poplar lintel, carved with the design of interlaced leaping fish, that now hangs over my fireplace.’ At the dig he also finds ‘a cache of wooden slips on which are painted characters in a script I have not seen the like of. We have found slips like these before scattered like clothespegs in the ruins, but mostly so bleached by the action of the sand that the writing has been illegible. The characters on the new slips are as clear as the day they were written.’

The magistrate describes the image of Col Joll’s first prisoners: river folk who file into the output’s square, silent, cowed and so numerous that he can no longer see.

‘How can you explain this?’ he shouts at a guard, ‘These are fishing people! How can you bring them back here?’ and ‘This man is ridiculous!’, referring to Joll who is out in the desert searching for the barbarians. -- At first the magistrate’s concern lies with this first group of prisoners. -- ‘Then, all together, we lose sympathy for them. The filth, the smell, the noise of their quarreling and coughing becomes too much.’

When Joll returns with his barbarians, the magistrate gives us his thoughts -- ‘I see what I have been dreading, the black carriage, then the shuffling group of prisoners roped together neck to neck, shapeless figures in their sheepskin coats under the silver moonlight.’ -- He makes his way back to his apartment -- ‘I feel old and tired, I want to sleep. I sleep whenever I can nowadays and, when I wake up, wake reluctantly. Sleep is no longer a healing bath, a recuperation of vital forces, but an oblivion, a nightly brush with annihilation.’ -- He wishes not to be at the center of the current proceeding which clearly will end badly.-- ‘I know somewhat too much; and from this knowledge, once one has been infected, there seems no recovering. I ought never have taken my lantern to see what was going on in the hut by the granary. On the other hand, there was no way, once I had picked up the lantern, for me to put it down again.’ -- He visits a local girl and after sex with her, he sleeps ‘like a dead man’-- ‘ It occurs to me that whatever I want to say to her will be heard with sympathy, with kindness. But what can I possibly say? “Terrible things go on in the night while you and I are asleep?” The jackal rips out the hare’s bowels, but the world rolls on.’


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Ouazazate




The Barbarian Girl


Through the eyes of the magistrate -- ‘She kneels in the shade of the barracks wall a few yards from the gate, muffled in a coat too large for her, a fur cap open before her on the ground. She has the straight black eyebrows, the glossy black hair of the barbarians.’

‘A few days later I see her crossing the square, walking slowly and awkwardly with two sticks, the sheepskin coat trailing behind her in the dust. I give orders; she is brought to my rooms, where she stands before me propped on her sticks. “Take off your cap,” I say. The soldier who has brought her in lifts off the cap. It is the same girl, the same black hair cut in a fringe across the forehead, the same broad mouth, the black eyes that look through me and past me. “They tell me you are blind.” “I can see,” she says. Her eyes move from my face to somewhere behind me to the right.” ------ “Look at me.” I say. “I am looking. This is how I look.” I wave a hand in front of her eyes. She blinks. I bring my face closer and stare into her eyes. She wheels her gaze from the wall onto me. The black irises are set off by milky whites as clear as a child’s. I touch her cheek: she starts.’

He offers a place in his household, tending to him. She rejects the offer. A day passes. He comes to get her, standing before her as she sits with her back leaning against ‘a great walnut tree.’---- She reluctantly allows him to lead her across the square to his rooms.

“This is not what you think it is,” I say. The words come reluctantly. Can I really be about to excuse myself? Her lips are clenched shut, her ears too no doubt, she wants nothing of old men and their bleating consciences. I prowl around her, talking about our vagrancy ordinances, sick at myself. Her skin begins to glow in the warmth of the closed room. She tugs at her coat, opens her throat to the fire. The distance between myself and her torturers, I realize, is negligible; I shudder.’ He wants to see her feet. ‘ I work at the thongs and eyelets of the coat, throw it open, pull the boots off. They are a man’s boots, far too large for her. Inside them her feet are swaddled, shapeless. “Let me see,” I say.

She unwraps the bandages; he gets ‘a pitcher and a basin of warm water.’ He gets her to sit on a stool, pours water in the basin and begins to wash her feet.

‘I lose myself in the rhythm of what I am doing. I lose awareness of the girl herself. There is a space of time which is blank to me: perhaps I am not even present. When I come to, my fingers have slackened, the foot rests in the basin, my head droops.’

The following morning he becomes aware that she can see no more than a blur out of the corner of her eyes. She refuses to tell him what the torturers did to her. A ritual develops. Each time he sits and washes her, and the same stuporous state seizes him. He washes her completely. He lies her on the bed and rubs her body with almond oil.

‘I feel no desire to enter this stocky little body glistening by now in the firelight. It is a week since words have passed between us. I feed her, I shelter her, use her body, if that is what I am doing, in this foreign way.’ One night he notices a pucker at the corner of one eye. He asks about it. “That is where they touched me, she says, and pushes my hand away. “Does it hurt?” She shakes her head. It has been growing more and more clear to me that until the marks on this girl’s body are deciphered and understood, I cannot let go of her.’

He continues to ask her what the torturers did, and she refuses to answer. He begins interviewing the guards who were present when the prisoners were interrogated. He examines the torture room, finding nothing of interest. He learns that the girl was with her father when she arrived, asking him, ----“Do you remember that prisoner? Do you know what they did to him?” “We heard he went berserk and attacked them.” “Yes?” “That is what we heard. I helped to carry him back to the hall. Where they all slept. He was breathing strangely, very deep and fast. That was the last I saw of him. He was dead the next day.”

There are other scenes with the barbarian girl that are similar to what I have given you here. The magistrate is alternately confused and angered by his attempts to understand the girl and to be understood by her.

‘But with this woman it is as if there is no interior, only a surface across which I hunt back and forth seeking entry. Is this how her torturers felt hunting their secret, whatever they thought it was? For the first time I feel a dry pity for them: how natural a mistake to believe that you can burn or tear or hack your way into the secret body of the other!’ And, ‘I am the same man I always was; but time has broken, something has fallen upon me from the sky, at random, from nowhere: this body in my bed, from which I am responsible, or so it seems, otherwise why do I keep it?’



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Excursion: Ouazazate and Mhamid desert



Colonel Joll

We meet Joll through the magistrate in the first sentence of the novel.

‘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 his blind eyes. But he is not blind. The discs are dark, they look opaque from the outside, but he can see through them. He tells me they are a new invention. “They protect one’s eyes against the glare of the sun,” he says. “You would find them useful out here in the desert. They save one from squinting all the time. One has fewer headaches. Look.” He touches the corners of his eyes lightly. “No wrinkles.” He replaces the glasses. It is true. He has the skin of a younger man.’

He shows Joll the granary which will become the site of torture. There are two barbarians bound and lying in the darkness of the granary. They have been beaten. The magistrate attempts to understand what has happened, questioning the guards, but also providing excuses for the bound old man and boy.

“These are the only prisoners we have taken in a long time,” I say, A coincidence: normally we would not have any barbarians at all to show you. This so-called banditry does not amount to much. They steal a few sheep or cut out a pack-animal from a train.”

Joll remains silent. Later, when people talk about hearing screams coming from the granary, the magistrate tells us he has heard nothing. Still, when he sees Joll, he ---- ‘brings the conversation around to torture. “What if your prisoner is telling the truth,” I ask, “yet finds he is not believed? Is that not a terrible position? Imagine: to be prepared to yield, to yield, to have nothing more to yield, to be broken, yet to be pressed to yield more! And what is the responsibility of the interrogator! How do you ever know where a man has told you the truth?” “There is a certain tone,” Joll says. “A certain tone enters the voice of a man who is telling the truth. Training and experience teach us to recognize that tone.” “The tone of truth! Can you pick up this tone in everyday speech? Can you hear whether I am telling the truth?” This is the most intimate moment we have yet had, which he brushes off with a little wave of the hand. “No, you misunderstand me. I am speaking only of a special situation now, I am speaking of a situation in which I am probing for the truth, in which I have to exert pressure to find it. 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. This is how you get the truth.”

‘Pain is truth; all else is subject to doubt. That is what I bear away from my conversation with Colonel Joll, whom with his tapering fingernails, his mauve handkerchiefs, his slender feet in soft shoes that I keep imagining back in the capital he is so obviously impatient for, murmuring to his friends in theatre corridors between the acts.’

By the time we reach the following scene, the magistrate is being kept under lock and key by Joll. As the scene begins he has been summoned to Joll’s presence.

‘Looking down to refer to his papers, the Colonel speaks. “Among the items found in your apartment was this wooden chest. I would like you to consider it. Its contents are unusual. It contains approximately three hundred slips of white poplarwood, each about eight inches by two inches, many of them wound about with lengths of string. The wood is dry and brittle. Some of the string is new, some so old it has perished………”A reasonable inference is that the wooden slips contain messages passed between yourself and other parties, we do not know when. It remains for you to say and who the other parties were.” He takes a slip from the chest and flicks it across the polished surface of the desk towards me.’

‘I look at the lines of characters written by a stranger long since dead. I do not even know whether to read from right to left or from left to right. In the long evenings I spent poring over my collection I isolated over four hundred different characters in the script, perhaps as many as four hundred and fifty. I have no idea what they stand for. Does each stand for a single thing, a circle for the sun, a triangle for a woman, a wave for a lake; or does a circle merely stand for a circle, a triangle for triangle, a wave for a wave? …….Or are my four hundred characters nothing more than scribbled embellishments of an underlying repertory of twenty or thirty whose primitive forms I am too stupid to see?'

“He sends greeting to his daughter,” I say. I hear with surprise the thick nasal voice that is now mine. My fingers run along the line of characters from right to left. “Whom he says he has not seen in a long time. He hopes she is happy and thriving. He hopes the lambing season has been good……I reach into the chest and pick out a second slip. The warrant officer, who sits behind Joll with a little notebook open on his knee, stares hard at me, his pencil poised above the paper. “This one reads as follows,” I say: “I am sorry I must send bad news. The soldiers came and took your brother away. I have been to the fort every day to plead for his return. I sit in the dust with my head bare. Yesterday for the first time they sent a man to speak to me. He says your brother is no longer here. He says he has been sent away. “Where?” I asked, but he would not say. Do not tell your mother, but join me in praying for his safety.”

”Now let us see what the next one says. See, there is only a single character. It is the barbarian character for war, but it has other senses too. It can stand for vengeance, and, if you turn it upside down like this, it can be made to read justice. There is no knowing which sense is intended. That is part of barbarian cunning. “It is the same with the rest of these slips.” I plunge my good hand into the chest and stir. “They form an allegory. They can be read in many orders. Further, each single slip can be read in ways. Together they can be read as a domestic journal, or they can be read as a plan for war, or they can be turned on their sides and read as a history of the last years of the Empire -- the old Empire, I mean.”

Joll is dismissive of the magistrate’s obvious attempt to belittle him. The magistrate becomes angry, demanding to be prosecuted so that he can defend himself. Joll ridicules him, suggesting that he has become the laughing stock of the community. The interview ends with a round of accusations from the magistrate which is greeted with impassivity by Joll who turns him over to the warrant officer --- “He is your responsibility.”


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Another photo of desert outside Ouazazate



Mandel


Once again through the eyes of the magistrate.

‘A detachment of new conscripts has arrived to take the places of men who have completed their three-year spell on the frontier and are ready to leave for their homes. The detachment is led by a young officer who is to join the staff here.’
The magistrate invites him and two colleagues to join him for dinner. --- ‘We speak of the barbarians. He is convinced, he says, that for part of the way he was trailed at a distance by barbarians. Are you sure they were barbarians? I ask. Who else could they have been? he replies. His colleagues concur……”The rumor going about brigade headquarters, “ he says, “is that there will be a general offensive against the barbarians in the spring to push them back from the frontier into the mountains.”

‘I am sorry to break off the train of reminiscing. I do not want to end the evening with a wrangle. Nevertheless I respond. “I am sure it is only a rumor: they cannot seriously intend to do that. The people we call barbarians are nomads, they migrate between the lowlands and the uplands every year, that is their way of life. They will never permit themselves to be bottled up in the mountains.”

‘He looks at me oddly. For the first time this evening I feel a barrier descend, the barrier between the military and the civilian. ”But surely,” he says, “if we are to be frank, this is what war is about: compelling a choice on someone who would not otherwise make it.”

‘He leans forward, wearing an air of deferential boyish puzzlement: I am more and more convinced that he is playing with me. “Tell me sir, in confidence,” he says, “what are these barbarians dissatisfied about? What do they want from us?” I ought to be cautious but I am not. I ought to yawn, evade his question, end the evening; but I find myself rising to the bait. (When will I learn to a cunning tongue?) “They want an end to the spread of settlements across their land. They want their land back, finally. They want to be free to move about with their flocks from pasture to pasture as they used to.”

There is one other major scene with Mandel, and I have already given it to you: the torture scene with which I began the tidbit on torture.



I have not given you everything, not by a long shot. But perhaps I have impressed on you how easily this story sweeps into the brain. With simple words, simple sentences. Description that is applied like salt -- just enough. But what you have at the end is greater than the mere count of words. It is clearly cinematic, meaning that it creates vivid pictures in the brain, something that not all novels do well. Maybe it’s the questions that keep the mind busy days after you have finished the book? The magistrate’s questions seem to breed questions in the minds of readers. More than anything I hope I have shown you something of the heart of this story.

I hope the film is a success. How will Guerra translate it to the screen? What dialogue will be picked up whole from the book, what new insights will the director provide? The quality of a great film that has been distilled from a great book depends on the ability of the translator to find another room inside the original house that represents the novel. A completely new room that adds dimension to what has already be given, and in a way that compels in the same manner the novel compelled.


Source:

Coetzee, J. Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) Penguin Books
"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested." Sir Francis Bacon, Of Studies

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Waiting for the Barbarians - Tidbit 8: The Characters

Unread postby SnoopyDances » Sat Aug 10, 2019 5:16 pm

I love the pics you are using in these tidbits, FF. :goodvibes:
Beautiful scenes and vivid colors in what is otherwise a dry, barren landscape.
Such a contradiction. :spin:

Thanks for describing the characters. It will be interesting to see what the movie does with them. In the book, the magistrate and the girl form the basis of the story but I can't imagine casting Depp and Pattinson for relatively smaller roles. Hopefully, their characters will have more scenes in the movie and the actors will be allowed to develop them more fully.

I'm not sure if Coetzee intends for us to have any particular feelings for these characters...should we feel pity or hatred or love...I think he wants us to decide for ourselves.

In movies, the directors usually decide that for us in the way the characters are portrayed. Looking forward to the film.:popcorn: :soda:

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Waiting for the Barbarians - Tidbit 8: The Characters

Unread postby fireflydances » Tue Aug 13, 2019 12:22 pm

Thank you again for your comment. Really appreciate it!

More than anything I did this comment to give people more depth into the book. Yes, we do not know the details of what is planned. But am currently working on a tidbit that may change that substantially.

Keep tuned!
"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested." Sir Francis Bacon, Of Studies

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Waiting for the Barbarians - Tidbit 8: The Characters

Unread postby nebraska » Tue Aug 13, 2019 5:06 pm

I am not worried about Johnny's role being too small in this movie. He has a very meaty part, Joll is a pivotal character and one we love to hate (at least in the book). Johnny has played some really good smaller parts -- Roux in Chocolat, for instance. He will bring something special and memorable to this role.

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Waiting for the Barbarians - Tidbit 8: The Characters

Unread postby fireflydances » Tue Aug 13, 2019 8:16 pm

Thank you for your comment nebraska! I agree -- small or large role, its Johnny's ability to plumb the depths of a character that counts most of all. I truly don't believe he would have been chosen unless it was his peculiar skills that Guerra and Coetzee were looking for.
"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested." Sir Francis Bacon, Of Studies


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