Surrealpolitik: Waiting for the Barbarians

Author: J.M. Coetzee

New York: Penguin Books (1980)

Quick Summary

A beautiful and sad little novel about a remote outpost that comes under the tragic grip of the Empire's national security obsession, which insists that the subsistence-level nomads shoved off their land are ruthless and dangerous barbarians about to attack. The local magistrate tries to go along to get along but he's too decent so he gets chewed up and spat out. Repeat: national security obsession and non-existent enemies. It's all very pertinent to my themes.


There are 17 quotes currently associated with this book.

"I ask," I continue, "only because if you get lost it becomes our task here to find you and bring you back to civilization." We pause, savoring from our different positions the ironies of the word.

"Yes, of course," he says. "But that is unlikely. We are fortunate to have the excellent maps of the region provided by yourself."

"Those maps are based on little but hearsay, Colonel. I have patched them together from travelers' accounts over a period of ten or twenty years. I have never set foot myself where you plan to go. I am simply warning you." (page 12)
Tags: [Postmodernism, Simulacra/Illusion]
I know somewhat too much; and from this knowledge, once one has been infected, there seems to be no recovering. I ought never to 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. The knot loops in upon itself; I cannot find the end. (page 21)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Postmodernism, Literary/Poetic]
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! (page 43)
Tags: [The Other, Literary/Poetic]
"You have been treasonously consorting with the enemy," he says.

So it is out. "Treasonously consorting": a phrase out of a book.

"We are at peace here," I say, "we have no enemies." There is silence. "Unless I make a mistake," I say. "Unless we are the enemy." (page 77)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Everyday Life, Truth & Real, The Other, Simulacra/Illusion, Literary/Poetic]
I sleep all day and all night, barely disturbed by the chop-chop of picks behind the wall at my head or the faraway rumble of barrows and shouts of labourers. In my dreams I am again in the desert, plodding through endless space towards an obscure goal. I sigh and wet my lips. "What is that noise?" I ask when the guard brings my food. They are tearing down the houses built against the south wall of the barracks, he tells me: they are going to extend the barracks and build proper cells. "Ah yes," I say: "time for the black flower of civilization to bloom." He does not understand. (page 79)
Tags: [Literary/Poetic, Dreams]
I should never have allowed the gates of the town to be opened to people who assert that there are higher considerations than those of decency. (page 81)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Literary/Poetic]
From the courtroom to the executioner they will drag me kicking and weeping, bewildered as the day I was born, clinging to the end to the faith that no harm can come to the guiltless. "You are living in a dream!" I say to myself: I pronounce the words aloud, stare at them, try to grasp their significance: "You must wake up!"...I truly believe I am not afraid of death. What I shrink from, I believe, is the shame of dying as stupid and befuddled as I am. (page 94)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Literary/Poetic, Dreams]
I can see that weeks of hard work await the farmers. And at any moment their work can be brought to nothing by a few men armed with spades! How can we win such a war? What is the use of textbook military operations, sweeps and punitive raids into the enemy's heartland, when we can be bled to death at home? (page 100)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Literary/Poetic]
What, after all, do I stand for besides an archaic code of gentlemanly behaviour towards captured foes, and what do I stand against except the new science of degradation that kills people on their knees, confused and disgraced in their own eyes? (page 108)
Tags: [Terror, Literary/Poetic]
"Now let us see what the next one says. See, there is only a single character. It is the barbarian character 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 many ways. Together they can be read as a domestic journal, or they can be read as a plan of 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. There is no agreement among scholars about how to interpret these relics of the ancient barbarians. Allegorical sets like this one can be found buried all over the desert...It is recommended that you simply dig at random: perhaps at the very spot where you stand you will come upon scraps, shards, reminders of the dead. Also the air: the air is full of sighs and cries. These are never lost: if you listen carefully, with a sympathetic ear, you can hear them echoing forever within the second sphere. The night is best: sometimes when you have difficulty in falling asleep it is because your ears have been reached by the cries of the dead which, like their writings, are open to many interpretations. (page 112)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, The Other, Literary/Poetic]
"I am waiting for you to prosecute me!" I shout. "When are you going to do it? When are you going to bring me to trial? When am I going to have a chance to defend myself?" I am in a fury. None of the speechlessness I felt in front of the crowd afflicts me. If I were to confront these men now, in public, in a fair trial, I would find the words to shame them. It is a matter of health and strength: I feel my hot words swell in my breast. But they will never bring a man to trial while he is healthy and strong enough to confound them. They will shut me away in the dark till I am a muttering idiot, a ghost of myself; then they will haul me before a closed court and in five minutes dispose of the legalities they find so tiresome. (page 113)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror]
I am swinging gently in the air, bumping against the ladder, flailing with my feet. The drumbeat in my ears becomes slower and louder till it is all I can hear.

I am standing in front of the old man, screwing up my eyes against the wind, waiting for him to speak. The ancient gun still rests between his horse's ears, but it is not aimed at me. I am aware of the vastness of the sky all around us, and of the desert.

I watch his lips. At any moment now he will speak: I must listen carefully to capture every syllable, so that later, repeating them to myself, poring over them, I can discover the answer to a question which for the moment has flown like a bird from my recollection.

I can see every hair of the horse's mane, every wrinkle of the old man's face, every rock and furrow of the hillside.

The girl, with her black hair braided and hanging over her shoulder in barbarian fashion, sits her horse behind him. Her head is bowed, she too is waiting for him to speak.

I sigh. "What a pity," I think. "It is too late now."

I am swinging loose. The breeze lifts my smock and plays with my naked body. I am relaxed, floating. In a woman's clothes. (page 120)
Tags: [Surrealism, Truth & Real, Literary/Poetic, Dreams]
There have been incidents in which soldiers have gone into shops, taken what they wanted, and left without paying. Of what use is it for the shopkeeper to raise the alarm when the criminals and the civil guard are the same people? (page 123)
Tags: [Fascism, Culture, Literary/Poetic]
He turns away, but with a slow claw-like hand I manage to catch his arm. "No, listen!" I say. "Do not misunderstand me, I am not blaming you or accusing you, I am long past that. Remember, I too have devoted a life to the law, I know its processes, I know that the workings of justice are often obscure. I am only trying to understand. I am trying to understand the zone in which you live. I am trying to imagine how you breathe and eat and live from day to day. But I cannot! That is what troubles me! If I were he, I say to myself, my hands would feel so dirty that it would choke me -- "

He wrenches himself free and hits me so hard in the chest that I gasp and stumble backwards. "You bastard!" he shouts. "You fucking old lunatic! Get out! Go and die somewhere!"

"When are you going to put me on trial?" I shout at his retreating back. He pays no need. (page 126)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Fascism, Postmodernism, Culture, Literary/Poetic]
The soldiery tyrannizes the town. They have held a torchlight meeting on the square to denounce "cowards and traitors" and to affirm collective allegiance to the Empire. WE STAY has become the slogan of the faithful: the words are to be seen daubed on walls everywhere. I stood in the dark on the edge of the huge crowd that night (no one was brave enough to stay at home) listening to these words chanted ponderously, menacingly from thousands of throats. A shiver ran down my back. After the meeting the soldiers led a procession through the streets. Doors were kicked in, windows broken, a house set on fire. Till late at night there was drinking and carousing on the square...Now that they seem to be all that stands between us and destruction, these foreign soldiers are anxiously courted. (page 130-131)
Tags: [Fascism, Literary/Poetic]
What has made it impossible for us to live in time like fish in water, like birds in air, like children? It is the fault of Empire! 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 hagged 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. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation. A mad vision yet a virulent one: I, wading in the ooze, am no less infected with it than the faithful Colonel Joll as he tracks the enemies of Empire through the boundless desert, sword unsheathed to cut down barbarian after barbarian... (page 133)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Culture, American Exceptionalism, Literary/Poetic]
For I was not, as I liked to think, the indulgent pleasure-loving opposite of the cold rigid Colonel. I was the lie that Empire tells itself when times are easy, he the truth that Empire tells when harsh winds blow. Two sides of imperial rule, no more, no less. (page 135)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Fascism, Culture, Myth, Literary/Poetic]