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Power nad Privilege in Coetzee’s Waiting For the Barbarians

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. Coetzee is careful to make the lessons of his work as broad and universally applicable as possible by giving general labels to groups rather than intricate descriptions of them – the dominant government is simply the Empire (Coetzee, 2), who is in an armed conflict with an indigenous people, the Barbarians (3). Even the protagonist is more of a role than a character, the Magistrate of the town (2). This provides the perfect backdrop for analysis of oppressor-oppressed relationships, as well as the individual-governmental relationship inherent in any type of governance. His essay will critically review two articles based on details of these relationships: Susan Van Zanten Gallagher’s Torture and the Novel: J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Waiting for the Barbarians,’ which deals with the depictions of torture, the torturer and the tortured in literature, and Troy Urqhart’s Truth, Reconciliation and the Restoration of the State: Coetzee’s ‘Waiting for the Barbarians,’ which deals with the broader themes of the state and its relationship with the population it purports to govern. Susan Van Zanten Gallagher’s Torture and the Novel: J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Waiting for Barbarians’ central thesis is that Coetzee walks a fine line when depicting torture, trying to give it honesty without glorification, and uses ambiguity and allegory to his advantage in this quest. Essentially, Gallagher claims that Coetzee objects to realistic depiction of torture in fiction because he thinks that the novelist participates vicariously in the atrocities, validates the acts of torture, assists the state in terrorizing and paralyzing people by showing its oppressive methods in detail, citing quotes by Coetzee himself to indicate this belief (Gallagher 277). She then indicates that this belief presents two important dilemmas to Coetzee: first, that he must treat a middle path between ignoring the obscenities perpetrated by the state and validating them by depicting them in all of their graphic detail (278), and second, that he must find a way to depict the torturer without resorting to tired and ridiculous cliches, such as the tragically divided torturer, the satanic evil, or the faceless functionary (279). Only when all of these goals have been accomplished can torture actually be removed from empowering the torturer and the oppressor, and rather empower the oppressed, suggests Gallagher (278). After defining the two dilemmas associated with torture that Coetzee faces when constructing the text Waiting for the Barbarians, she then moves on to an in-depth analysis of exactly how Coetzee overcomes, or attempts to overcome these dilemmas. Though this is not explicitly included in her thesis, I believe it appropriate to summarize here: Coetzee overcomes the first dilemma through the use of language and literary device, and the second by attempting to eliminate the divide between the torturer and the innocent, in order to make the torturer true, living, breathing characters (284). There are, however, several basic problems with this thesis. The most fundamental of these is the extent to which it relies on quotations from the author, Coetzee, that he made outside of his writings. Firstly, this creates a fundamental issue of authorial intent. It is a literary critic’s role to analyze what an author does, not what an author meant to do. The whole thesis essentially revolves around what Coetzee was trying to accomplish – phrases such as Coetzee suggests