At an early age, I was always taught about the traditional values in order to become a respected individual of society. I was always taught to solve math using PEMDAS, to never use Wikipedia for English reports, and to always raise my hand to answer questions. This education I received during primary school did not prepare me for life after high school graduation or in college. When I started attending the University of California, Irvine (UCI), I began to have an awakening to many issues surrounding me. Issues that my parents thought I was too young for. Issues that my primary education teachers failed to mentioned in the classroom. Issues that popped this bubble I had. I was not the only one who felt this. In his famous novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, the author wrote of a character who held a high privileged status only to have fallen from it. The main character, the Magistrate, was awakened to issues and ideas that were not introduced to him either.
The Magistrate held a leadership position for a settlement, which was a part of an empire. There is not enough information from the book to provide a coherent background on the Magistrate but throughout this narrative, the reader can assume that Magistrate held beliefs, such as following the empire and respecting the actions from the empire’s leaders, and any challenging ideas were discouraged. However, the Magistrate was still able to think separately from the empire, such as not upholding prejudice towards “barbarians.”
“There have been no barbarian visitors this year. It used to be that group of nomads would visit the settlement in winter to pitch their tents outside the walls and engage in barter, exchanging wool, skins, felts and leahterwork for cotton goods, tea, sugar, beans, and flour. We prized barbarian leatherwork, particularly the sturdy boot they sew…It always pained me in the old days to see these people fall victim to the guild of shopkeepers, exchanging goods for trinkets, lying drunk in the gutter, and confirming thereby the settlers’ litany of prejudice: that barbarians are lazy, immoral, filthy, and stupid” (Coetzee, 43).
Now I placed the word, barbarians, in quotation marks to reflect the opinion of the Magistrate, in which the “barbarians” are ordinary people like the empire
citizens. This idea arouses a rebirth of the Magistrate as he continues to believe the “barbarians” are not wild, uncivilized, and filthy people but misunderstood by the empire. This awakening is important to the book (and to the extent, life) because it is relatable. Readers. Individuals. Students. Similar to myself, we hold values reflecting society and if challenged, we experienced an awakening. We are challenged by beliefs and values from a different society, a different perspective. The Magistrate, who lived in a place that upholds the values of the empire, was challenged to find these “barbarians” to maintain his system of beliefs (cultivated to fit the standards of the empire) but this challenge changed him. He used to be someone who is compliant towards the empire and ignores the bigger picture but now, he is someone who is willing to speak against the empire and look at the bigger picture from a different angle. The greatest thing about the Magistrate is not about feeling empathy and desire to understand the barbarians, but his awakening.
Awakenings do not happen on the spur of chance. Awakening is enlightenment. They happen when someone has a question or a disagreement or shock. They happened when someone is introduced to the unknown. Introduced to things that were withheld. What the Magistrate and myself shared was discovering the other society. We shared an awakening.
Coetzee, J.M. Waiting for the Barbarians. Penguin Books. 1980. Page 43.