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Monday, 31 October 2005
Waiting for the Barbarians

Queen Victoria

This is the statue of Queen Victoria, outside Windsor Castle.

Waiting for the Barbarians is the name of a poem by the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (1864-1933). The Nobel Prize winner for Literature in 2003, the South African born JM Coetzee, used the title of the poem as the title of a book he published in 1980.  The book is a critique of apartheid, and Amazon describes it thus:

For decades the Magistrate has run the affairs of a tiny frontier settlement, ignoring the impending war between the barbarians and the Empire, whose servant he is. But when the interrogation experts arrive, he is jolted into sympathy with the victims and into a quixotic act of rebellion which lands him in prison, branded as an enemy of the state. Waiting for the Barbarians is an allegory of oppressor and oppressed. Not just a man living through a crisis of conscience in an obscure place in remote times, the Magistrate is an analogue of all men living in complicity with regimes that ignore justice and decency.

Morris Berman, author of the book The Twilight of American Culture writing in The Guardian shortly after the September 2001 attacks on New York drew a chilling parallel between the Roman Empire and the United States of America.

Recently Coetzee (who emigrated to Australia in 2002) spoke out against the proposed anti-terror laws proposed by various western governments:

“I used to think that the people who created (South Africa’s) laws that effectively suspended the rule of law were moral barbarians,” Coetzee was quoted as saying.

“Now I know they were just pioneers ahead of their time.”

Preparing to read from his 1980 anti-apartheid novel “Waiting for the Barbarians”, Coetzee said South African security police in the 1970s could arrest and detain people without explanation “and do what they wanted” with them “because special provisions of the legislation indemnified them in advance”.

“All of this, and much more during apartheid in South Africa, was done in the name of the fight against terror,” said the 2003 Nobel laureate.

There is a good overview of JM Coetzee and his works here.  The full text of the poem Waiting for the Barbarians by Constantine Cavafy and translated by Edmund Keeley, is as follows:

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

  The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

  Because the barbarians are coming today.
  What laws can the senators make now?
  Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

  Because the barbarians are coming today
  and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
  He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
  replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

  Because the barbarians are coming today
  and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

  Because the barbarians are coming today
  and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

  Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
  And some who have just returned from the border say
  there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Philip Glass has produced an Opera based on Coetzee’s book, and it premiered in Erfurt (Germany) on 10 September 2005.  JM Coetzee’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech can be read here.

Posted by bigblue on 31/10/2005 at 11:32 PM
Filed under: EuropeUnited KingdomEngland • (2) CommentsPermalinkBookmark or Share

I hoping the next book by JM Coetzee will be called “Disgust”.

Yesterday in Australia the ruling right-wing coalition is trying to force its new “terror” laws through parliament.  The Prime Minister suddenly announced out of the blue that there is “credible evidence of an imminent terrorist attack” in Australia.  Next week the new industrial relations laws will be tabled.  No doubt there will be some other imminent threat then.

These people certainly are moral barbarians.

Posted by flank  on  03/11/2005  at  02:45 AM

Yes, I have been following the story of your anti-terror legislation over at barista  (links to his latest post).  Our anti-terror legislation scraped through the House of Commons this week with a one-vote majority .... with the notable absence of various opposition MPs - including George Galloway - probably through ineptitude.

Posted by bigblue  on  05/11/2005  at  07:28 PM

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