In a Carpool Karaoke episode with James Corden and Gwen Stefani, the two of them pause from singing her songs and wander into a conversation about different terms for male genitals. James starts a list: eggplant, the prize, the truth. Gwen stops him at "the truth" and asks him to explain that one. He replies, because the truth hurts, and, you can't handle the truth. Gwen laughs and says, You know what the name of my record is? This is What the Truth Feels Like.
In many ways this multi-meaning of the truth, both this sexual distinction and as the verity of fact, is a theme of J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. Coetzee cleverly uses a tactic with his readers that his barbarians use to draw out and isolate the Empire's guard to leave them abandoned. The book is set in an outpost of an empire, and while the main character, who is a magistrate of the fort-like town, refers to this place as an oasis and paradise, we are in fact abandoned there, and it is not a good feeling. The is no reference to the era or a specific location. We come to know that there are extreme seasons and the land wastes away into a desert, where the barbarians lurk and evoke a constant fear of attack. Is it even Earth? Most likely because the characters are all too human.
The magistrate is a hapless character who is sympathetic to the barbarians, and even takes in one young barbarian woman with whom he sleeps. He also visits a young prostitute to fill the voids in his life. And while he is not a great leader, his aloofness does not disrupt the rhythm of the outpost. This is later contrasted by the colonel and an influx of soldiers. During that authoritarian regime he is held in prison, and tensions with the barbarians lead to failed troop maneuvers, flooded crops, and abandonment of the outpost by many civilians.
The truth is, of course, countered with lies:
For I was not, as I liked to think, the indulgent pleasure-loving opposite of the cold rigid Colonel. I was the lie that the empire tells itself when times are easy, he the truth that the Empire tells when harsh winds blow. Two sides of imperial rule, no more, no less.
I like how Coetzee also plays with the word lie as a sexual twist; to lie in bed with the naked body of the barbarian consort, and the prostitute. One of the more interesting uses of lie is a passage when he confronts the man who imprisoned him.
Thinking of him, I have said the words 'torture...torturer' to myself, but they are strange words, and the more I repeat them the more strange they grow, till they lie like stones on my tongue.
Torture and language are two other themes in this book, which pair nicely with truth and lies. In fact, we start this story with torture. The colonel speaks about the process of torture and how truth has a certain tone of voice.
First I get lies, you see - this is what happens - first lies, then pressure, then more lies, then more pressure, then the break, then more pressure, then the truth. That is how you get the truth.
Pain is truth; all else is subject to doubt.
In the first line of the book we are contemplating the dark sunglasses of the colonel:
I have never seen anything like it; two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire. Is he blind? I could understand it if he wanted to hide blind eyes. But he is not blind.
And with this, from the start, the idea of blindness and truth go hand in hand. The young barbarian consort was partially blinded during her initial detention at the outpost, before the magistrate took her in. His comments include visual arousals such as...
She lies naked, her oiled skin glowing a vegetal gold in the firelight.
...but there is another level he accesses by abandoning his vision...
I shut my eyes, breathe deeply to still my agitation, and concentrate wholly on seeing her through my blind fingertips.
Eventually the magistrate decides to return his other-worldly mistress to the barbarian people and sets out on a life-threatening trek with a handful of men. But when they are finally face to face with hostile barbarians, the magistrate asks her to tell them the truth.
You really want me to tell them the truth?
Tell them the truth. What else is there to tell?
She shakes her head, keeps her silence.
It is a moment when only the barbarian consort is in possession of both languages. The magistrate thinks the truth in their own language will diffuse the tense meeting, while she knows the danger of the truth, particularly that she was the old man's consort.
One of my favorite passages about language discusses their communication common ground.
In the makeshift language we share there are no nuances. She has a fondness for facts, I note, for pragmatic dicta; she dislikes fancy, questions, speculations; we are an ill-matched couple.
And when the magistrate is imprisoned and tortured with a sloppy, failed hanging he cries out...
From my throat comes the first mournful dry bellow, like the pouring of gravel....Someone gives me a push and I begin to float back and forth in an arc a foot above the ground like a great old moth with it wings pinched together, roaring, shouting. "He is calling his barbarian friends," someone observes. "That is barbarian language you hear." There is laughter.
This is later revisited when he accepts the hospitality of the "quartermaster's plump wife",
I ramble on; she listens to these half-truths, nodding, watching me like a hawk; we pretend that the voice she hears is not the voice of the man who swung from the tree shouting for mercy loud enough to waken the dead.
The deepest dive into language is when the magistrate returns from the trip out into the barbarian wasteland. The colonel accuses him of espionage. A chest of hundreds of barbarian messages are found in the magistrate's office and he is directed to translate them.
I look at the lines of characters written by a stranger long since dead. I do not even know whether to read from right to left or from left to right. In the long evening I spent poring over my collection I isolated over four hundred different characters in the script, perhaps as many as found hundred and fifty. I have no idea what they stand for. Does each stand for a single thing, a circle for the sun, a triangle for a woman, a wave for a lake; or does a circle merely stand for "circle", a triangle for "triangle", a wave for "wave"? Does each sign represent a different state of the tongue, the lips, the throat, the lungs, as they combine in the uttering of some multifarious unimaginable extinct barbarian language? Or are my four hundred characters nothing but scribal embellishments of an underlying repertory of twenty or thirty whose primitive forms I am too stupid to see?
After this contemplation, the magistrate begins to "read"/fake-translate the slips, and gives a voice to barbarians that is critical of the Empire.
This one reads as follows...I am sorry I must send bad news. The soldiers came and took your brother away. I have been to the fort every day to plead for his return. I sit in the dust with my head bare. Yesterday for the first time they sent a man to speak to me. He says your brother is no longer here. He says he has been sent away.
The magistrate's creative ad lib translation even explores a fantastic structure of a language that actually stumps him.
...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...They form an allegory. They can be read in many orders. Further, each 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...
Coetzee's strongest voice, however, is a very personal unveiling of emotions by an older man with a younger love interest.
I have known her a year, visiting her sometimes twice a week in this room. I feel a quiet affection for her which is perhaps the best that can be hoped for between an aging man and a girl of twenty; better than a possessive passion certainly.
As the magistrate ages and his circumstances in the outpost worsen, his understandings of his relations with the young women becomes much more self-critical.
Her beauty awakes no desire in me. Instead it seems more obscene than ever that this heavy slack foul-smelling old body...should ever had held her in its arms. What have I been doing all this time, pressing myself upon such flowerlike soft-petalled children - not only her, on the other too? I should have stayed among the gross and decaying where I belong; fat women with acrid armpits and bad tempers, whores with big slack cunts. I tiptoe out, hobble down the stairs in the blinding glare of the sun.
Near the end of the story the magistrate contemplates various scenarios of the final breech of their insulated outpost by the barbarians and how his life would terminate but then he finishes his more brutal thoughts with something quite elevated:
I lie on the bare mattress and concentrate on bringing into life the image of myself as a swimmer swimming with even, untiring strokes through the medium of time, a medium more inert than water, without ripples, pervasive, colourless, odourless, dry as paper.
For me this is symbolic of the writer and his story. Coetzee is not a linear narrator. His magistrate ebbs and flows through the happenings around the outpost. And even while the empire seems to be going to hell in a handbasket, the magistrate bobs between hardships and pleasure. Despite all the abuse and humiliation the magistrate endures, he finds comfort in the arms of women who sympathize with him, even if for a short while. After getting out of jail he wanders through and around the outpost. He lives on scraps of food tossed to dogs as well as the offerings of the women who want to hear his story. Just as the outpost is an oasis to him in the barbarian desert, women are oases within the outpost.
How can I believe that a bed is anything but a bed, a woman's body anything but a site of joy?
His organic dependence on woman is in contrast to the military men. When he goes to speak with the colonel and must first address a man sitting at his old desk, he describes the over-confident man.
I picture him sitting up in bed beside a girl, flexing his muscles for her, feeding on her admiration. The kind of man who drives his body like a machine, I imagine, ignorant that it has its own rhythms.
[some words I came across in Waiting for the Barbarians, which I did not know: palliation, palaver, apposite, jute]