Waiting for the Barbarians Question #4 - The Magistrate

Waiting for the Barbarians by ‎J.M. Coetzee

Moderators: Liz, fireflydances

User avatar
fireflydances
ONBC Moderator
Posts: 3307
Joined: Tue Apr 28, 2009 9:15 pm
Location: under a pile of books
Status: Offline

Waiting for the Barbarians Question #4 - The Magistrate

Unread post by fireflydances » Thu Sep 05, 2019 5:44 pm

The Magistrate is a complicated man. Because he is our storyteller we have unrestricted access to his thoughts and we hear from him in all sorts of moods and conditions. There will be additional questions about his relationship with the barbarian girl, but I’d like your first take on this central character.
"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested." Sir Francis Bacon, Of Studies

User avatar
SnoopyDances
Posts: 50897
Joined: Sun Feb 21, 2010 3:12 pm
Location: Tashmore Lake
Status: Offline

Waiting for the Barbarians Question #4 - The Magistrate

Unread post by SnoopyDances » Sun Sep 08, 2019 10:09 pm

He struck me as a guy who was probably very dedicated and good at his job once. But now, he is older, less idealistic about the importance of his assignment and going through the motions until he can retire.

He has learned the people of this area have had hardships beyond his comprehension and that the government he serves has done nothing to improve those hardships or improve conditions for those settling in the region.

He isn't allowed to make a difference and is mostly a paper pusher. He has learned to communicate with the locals and what works best in dealing with them. When to look the other way and when to enforce the rules. However, the government doesn't listen to his advice.

And now, he has to deal with Joll and the Barbarian threat. He can see where this will need. He's hoping to mind his business, push his paper, look the other way during the torture, and not get involved.

Suddenly, without realizing it, he got involved. He found something to care about and took a stand, probably for the first time ever. And was called a traitor for it. He knows if he can withstand the torture long enough, the government will fail and he can return to his previous existence.

A very sad and lonely existence.

User avatar
nebraska
Posts: 29363
Joined: Tue Jul 06, 2004 8:15 pm
Location: near Omaha
Status: Offline

Waiting for the Barbarians Question #4 - The Magistrate

Unread post by nebraska » Mon Sep 09, 2019 12:05 pm

All very well said, Snoopydances! I agree with what you have written about the Magistrate.

I want the main character in a book to be a "hero" and I didn't find the Magistrate to be very heroic. Left alone to manage the outpost as he saw fit, he behaved admirably, but his pacifist methods didn't work to combat the evil of the Empire. He was wishy-washy at best and downright cowardly at worst when Col Joll began his rampage.

I didn't really like the Magistrate very much. It seemed like his actions didn't match his ideals. Maybe my opinion has to do with knowing him too well. Maybe if I could read the thoughts of everyone so completely I wouldn't much care for anybody.

User avatar
SnoopyDances
Posts: 50897
Joined: Sun Feb 21, 2010 3:12 pm
Location: Tashmore Lake
Status: Offline

Waiting for the Barbarians Question #4 - The Magistrate

Unread post by SnoopyDances » Mon Sep 09, 2019 9:53 pm

nebraska wrote:All very well said, Snoopydances! I agree with what you have written about the Magistrate.

I want the main character in a book to be a "hero" and I didn't find the Magistrate to be very heroic.Left alone to manage the outpost as he saw fit, he behaved admirably, but his pacifist methods didn't work to combat the evil of the Empire. He was wishy-washy at best and downright cowardly at worst when Col Joll began his rampage.

I didn't really like the Magistrate very much. It seemed like his actions didn't match his ideals. Maybe my opinion has to do with knowing him too well. Maybe if I could read the thoughts of everyone so completely I wouldn't much care for anybody.
:highfive:

User avatar
fireflydances
ONBC Moderator
Posts: 3307
Joined: Tue Apr 28, 2009 9:15 pm
Location: under a pile of books
Status: Offline

Waiting for the Barbarians Question #4 - The Magistrate

Unread post by fireflydances » Tue Sep 10, 2019 9:31 pm

Snoopy your analysis of the Magistrate is spot on. Exactly what I experienced. And yes -- per Nebraska -- the Magistrate isn't a hero, which makes the read less straightforward than many books.

I believe that Coetzee intended us to see the many flaws of the Magistrate. We are watching a stranded bureaucrat left out in the cold for decades suddenly faced with an honest to God crisis that calls for moral leadership. He never expected that or wanted it. In fact he was perfectly willing to let Joll have his way as long as everything was behind doors. During those first days when he realized what Joll was doing the Magistrate is unwillingly forced to face something that he wishes to ignore at all costs. We read his thought after accompanying the Colonel and his troops as they move out "I believe in peace, perhaps even peace at any price." And also, "I ought never to have taken my lanterns to see what was going on in the hut by the granary. "

But we seen a reluctant turn in perspective in the next sentence, "On the other hand, there was no way, once I had picked up the lantern, for me to put it down again. The knot loops in upon itself; I cannot find the end."

I see the Magistrate as as unwilling witness to the aggression of the Empire. As snoopy points out -- the Empire could be anywhere, any place where a government acts without regard for human beings. There are historical examples of such conduct around the world, whether we are talking about Germany before and during WWII, but also anytime a government acts to oppress people to achieve its own ends. Things done in the name of 'manifest destiny' come to mind for me.

To his credit the Magistrate doesn't continue to look away. His efforts to do 'something' are muddled and halting. His motives are mixed, confused because of his own insecurities. Even his final confrontation with Joll is flawed by an over-abundance of self-righteousness. The Magistrate is Coetzee's common man. It is noteworthy that he is never given a name. This allows him to really be any one of us anywhere facing the oppression of others, and knowing better, yet not able, until pulled or pushed to stand and declare ourselves in opposition. So even the flawed can act. And from that perspective the Magistrate can be a model for how even the reluctant, the non-involved, those that look away, can find a way to move forward. So, no hero, but then how many heroes are these really? Aren't most of us more like the Magistrate than not?
"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested." Sir Francis Bacon, Of Studies