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Waiting for Barbarians by J. M Coetzee - Book Review Example

5 pages
1334 words
Sewanee University of the South
Type of paper: 
Book review
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The extraction of truth from prisoners or captives has not changed regardless of the increase in human rights activism and burgeoning fights against torture and mistreatment. During the eighteenth century, states and kingdoms applied inhuman methods in the quest to obtain information and expanded territories. The lust for truth led to the rise of brutal and possibly life-threatening interrogation techniques. Despite the mortality and sufferings attached to the technique, governments went ahead to approve the means. With time, a group of elite men who would train in using torture for interrogation began to rise. Presently, governments are still employing torture for interrogation by using enhanced interrogation methods such as sleep deprivation and rough treatment (Laughland). The effects of the use of such lethal force on prisoners and other possibly innocent individuals is still a contentious issue of debate. One of the main concerns still lurking is whether current governments are justified to legalize and implement torture in interrogation. Evidently, torture is not efficient and causes more harm than good, and the effects of these mistreatments are far fetching as alluded to by J. M Coetzee in his novel.

The 1980 novel by Coetzee, Waiting for Barbarians, is a timeless work, which he uses to narrate the hardships of people during the era of colonialism and the divisive role of torture in their society. Coetzee was a South African writer based in a continent with burgeoning imperialism as evidenced by the peak of oppressive rules such as Apartheid in South Africa and other discriminative regimes around the continent. In the novel, Coetzee uses a magistrate as the narrator of the injustices of an unidentified Empire on its neighboring nomads. The governance of the Empire is set on hypocrisy and oppression as if to depict the evils occurring in the continent at that time. One of the central motifs that is poignant throughout the book is torture. It is saddening how agents of the Empire are ready to squeeze facts out of the seemingly innocent nomads at the expense of friendly relations and security of the Empire. The inhabitants of the Empire ironically refer to the nomads as barbarians despite the inhuman acts perpetrated by Colonel Joll and his fellow interrogators from The Third Bureau. In the long run, it becomes evident that the use of torture harmed the Empire more than it helped mend the fence with its neighbors and enemies.

At the beginning of the novel, Colonel Joll explains the technique used by the group of interrogators to acquire information from the prisoners, inadvertently revealing the inhumane nature and its inefficiency in obtaining accurate information. Joll talks about how he can tell that a person is telling the truth using the change of tone in the victim's voice (Coetzee 5). According to him, only crude means can extract the truth from victims. The magistrate is awed by the theoretical nature of Joll and the way the interrogators ignored the pain and suffering inflicted on the prisoners. What if a victim of interrogation gave up all the information they knew, and the interrogators are still in a state of denial of the truth and facts? The magistrate was fearful of such a scenario since it would mean that prisoners could be injured on innocent grounds. Thus, torture proved to be indiscriminate as both the innocent and the guilty were likely to fall victim. As an escape, most people ended up offering false information to survive the suffering inflicted by the soldiers. The magistrate demonstrates this concern when he tries to stop Joll from using the tortured boy as a guide, arguing that the boy could easily offer the Colonel false information to escape coercion (Coetzee 11). Hence, torture inflicts fear on victims leading to falsification of information.

The Empires use of torture leads to the cripples the civilization by inflicting disabilities and creating feelings of resentment among the victims. Such people end up becoming a liability to the Empire and its civilization. The magistrate meets a nomad girl in the town who was a victim of the brutal torture propagated by Colonel Joll and his men. The girl is blind and had turned to begging as a means of making ends meet (Coetzee 25). The magistrate takes her in and offers to her the work of a house cleaner in his home. With time, the two develop a relationship, which opens the eyes of the magistrate to the extreme effects of the interrogation program of the Empire. The girl's body is studded with scars and marks from torture that also made her lose her eyesight. Later in the book, the girl declines an offer by the magistrate to continue working and living with him in the empire as she opted to live with her people, the nomads (Coetzee 71). Evidently, the once friendly nomads had grown bitter and angry towards the people of the Empire, thus leading to enmity and hostility. Consequently, the rich cultural practices of the nomads no longer appeased the civilized inhabitants of the neighboring towns. The magistrate marvels at the cultural richness displayed by the nomads when he returns the girl to her people (Coetzee 72). However, the Empire inhabitants will never get to enjoy this cultural diversity due to the tyranny force inflicted on the nomads.

The oppressive rule in the Empire led to the rise of a morally depraved society that had no shame in perpetuating atrocities on innocent people. At the beginning of the novel, Coetzee presents to the readers a broken system of governance that uses trained soldiers to drive the agenda of the Empire. With time, the moral degradation spread to the inhabitants of the town. At one time, Colonel Joll beats the prisoners in front of the whole town. During the beating, some soldiers persuade a young one to take part in the caning (Coetzee 106). The crowd frivolously celebrate the actions of the girl oblivious of the fact that what had just transpired acted as an indicator of the level of moral decay in the society. The extent of the loss of sanity in both the townsmen and the ruling elites hit its peak when everyone turned against the magistrate for defending the prisoners. In a twist of events, the only person in the Empire who was brave enough to stand against the gruesome torture of the innocent regime became a victim of his own rule.

The preference for torture by the Empire bestowed unfettered powers onto few people leading to injustices. Colonel Joll does not show any remorse as he tortures the prisoners in the prisons and the streets of the town. He goes about practicing injustice regardless of the innocence of some of the prisoners. Other soldiers under The Third Bureau such as Mandel, exhibit the same behavior as Joll. The magistrate also exhibits the power that comes with being a leader in the Empire. In the start of the book, the magistrate does not speak up against the injustices being propagated on the nomads until he falls victim of the system. After his apprehension, he decides to stand against the acts of brutality by Colonel Joll although it was too late. Consequently, the system of torture proves ineffective, as it does not discriminate between the rulers and the inhabitants of the Empire.

In conclusion, coercion and torture prove to be of little use in the establishment of a stable rule. Coetzee effectively outlines the failures experienced by the Empire in keeping away the barbarians from terrorizing the town. Nevertheless, the people living in the same town ended up turning against their people in a bid to push for the Empire's programs. Consequently, people slowly moved away from the town due to the corruption therein. Torture as a system of obtaining truth and establishing a bigger Empire turned out to be ineffective and divisive.


Works Cited

Coetzee, J M. Waiting for the barbarians. Pennsylvania: Offset Paperback Mfrs., 1980.

Laughland, Oliver. "How the CIA tortures its detainees." The Guardian 20 May 2015. <>.


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