Waiting for the Barbarians Question #5: The Magistrate and the Barbarian Girl

Waiting for the Barbarians by ‎J.M. Coetzee

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Waiting for the Barbarians Question #5: The Magistrate and the Barbarian Girl

Unread post by fireflydances » Thu Sep 12, 2019 4:31 pm

A sizable chunk of the book -- chapters 2 and 3 -- are devoted to the relationship between the Barbarian Girl and the Magistrate. It is a strange relationship, full of the Magistrate's longings and insecurities, and very much framed by his worldview. The complexity of it gives us multiple paths to go down, and perhaps future questions. Let us begin by concentrating on our initial reaction to the relationship. And feel free to go in any direction you want to go. We'll see when we finish if we still have further things to unearth.
"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 Question #4: The Magistrate and the Barbarian Girl

Unread post by SnoopyDances » Thu Sep 12, 2019 10:47 pm

I was rather bored with the relationship, if you could call it that.

I think at first he felt sorry for her and her condition and generally wanted to help. As he got to know her, he became intrigued. She was both available and forbidden fruit.

He had grown tired of his job, duties, women, etc. Here was something new to try, but should he? His fantasies were so extreme, could reality live up to the hype? If so, could he rise to the challenge, as it were?

His indecisiveness made me lose interest, frankly. Do something!
Finally, when he decided to return her to her people, she had to make it happen. Maybe he was too exhausted from the travel to resist or over think it. Or maybe he thought it was a last chance to try the forbidden fruit.

I have no idea what she though of him or her situation. She had seen her people tortured and father killed. Maybe she thought she had to go along with his little games or risk more torture. Or maybe she was genuinely grateful for his treatment; the job, a place to sleep, food, some women to talk with.

I doubt either one was in love. I think it was simply something new for him to try and something she felt compelled to accept.

I'm sure it's riddled with symbolism and morals; just which side was really the barbarian and which side needed to fight back?

Of course, his decisions led to his downfall, but I think they would have found some other reason to remove him from his position eventually. The girl was the easy excuse...he was a traitor...simple.

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Waiting for the Barbarians Question #5: The Magistrate and the Barbarian Girl

Unread post by nebraska » Sat Sep 14, 2019 10:58 am

Ah, the Magistrate and the Girl! :rolleyes: We were bound to face that subject sooner or later because it plays such a big part in the book.

I don't think he wanted to abuse her. If he had wanted to take advantage of her he could have done it very early on and he did not. Even later on, when she tried to encourage intimate contact in his quarters, he refused her advances. As an aging man without a family, perhaps he felt the need to nurture something (he could have simplified the matter and just got a puppy). Perhaps he felt guilty because he didn't prevent or stop her torture and disfigurement and he was trying to atone for his part in it. He found he was self-soothing with the massages. The constant washing and oiling was strange to me. I am not sure what was going on with that, but then, neither was the Magistrate himself, so I am in good company.

After all the descriptive passages and musings which droned on for quite some time, I was a little disappointed that the two of them did not end up as a happy couple. But this is not really a book about happy endings, is it?

Like Snoopy said, I am sure "it's riddled with symbolism and morals". I read one opinion along the lines of mimicking Jesus washing the feet of the Apostles, but who knows. There are a lot of theories out there. I wonder if something of the "message" is lost if it is so ambiguous that it needs to be explained and people come up with so many different interpretations.

I want to enjoy reading a book, and when I come to the end find that my emotions have been touched gently and my mind has been subtly opened and shifted. Sometimes I feel like Barbarians wants to beat me about the head and shoulders with its "message" even though I don't even know what the message is supposed to be.

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Waiting for the Barbarians Question #5: The Magistrate and the Barbarian Girl

Unread post by fireflydances » Mon Sep 16, 2019 9:54 pm

Yes, I agree -- what the Magistrate was doing definitely seemed odd.

In the beginning I don't think he saw the Barbarian girl as human like himself. She is something 'other.' In place of her features, he sees a blank. He can't even call up an image of her for days; he sees her in the hallway and doesn't even recognize her.

At the same time he reports that he is bound, almost chained to the ritual of oiling and rubbing her. Maybe it feels curative to him, and he assumes to her also. He goes blank when he is in the midst of working on her skin. I wondered whether part of what was happening was the Magistrate attempting to deal with his guilt. In other words he is also a member of the Empire and thus also complicit in what Joll does to her people. Perhaps he had absolutely no words he could imagine himself saying to her that would explain what was done to her and her father. Certain crises leave us wordless. Joll has basically ripped off the genteel mask that the Magistrate had worn for years, believing he was being 'good' to the indigenous people when truly he did very little.

He assumes that she can't see him either, and thus he is able to bare himself to her --"his flabbly old man's breasts." So there is a great deal of intimacy between the pair but outside the bounds of desire. He tells us at one point "It has been growing more and more clear to me that until the marks on this girl's body are deciphered and understood I can't let go of her." To "decipher" here means to open the self and finally understand what has been done to another human being. To see "her" and her injuries as the defilement of a young woman. To be horrified and enraged, and committed to rectifying what has happened.

I don't fault him with not being able to be straightforward and courageous. We are literally inside this guy's head as he goes about the process of digesting what has happened and eventually, what he absolutely must do. So Coetzee goes very deep into this man's mind. A mind like our own, filled with disgust, uncertainty, and unable to face what has happened. I see him as in shock in a way, numbed and confused. And also like a baby, feeling his way towards some truth that still doesn't have words.

The girl is as straightforward as the Magistrate is immobilized. Remember the scene where he brings a baby fox into the apartment, which results in the animal peeing. "It's a very pretty little creature," I say. She shrugs. 'Animals belong outdoors." Then he makes a further mess, suggesting "People will say I keep two wild animals in my rooms, a fox and a girl." She doesn't see the joke, or does not like it." So typically tone deaf of the Magistrate. He is stumbling over himself in his attempts to see her as a human being, and she gets it.

I think Coetzee is examining the inner reality of people who find themselves unable to see another person as fully human as themselves. He does it obliquely. He never states it -- which of course no writer would. His desire is that we, the reader, unearth all of what he is telling us by coming down next to him and taking in each sentence.

Yes, there are academics who see lots of symbolism. It is my own opinion to search for symbols is to distance ourselves. Symbols cover things, organize things, they do not really make things clear.

Still more to discuss. Another night.
"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested." Sir Francis Bacon, Of Studies