Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Waiting for the Barbarians

Somewhere along the line I decided that I would read a book per month in 2007. Not exactly a New Year's resolution, but more of a commitment to doing things that I know I should be doing.

In preparation for attending the Austin Lyric Opera presentation of Philip Glass' Waiting for the Barbarians next weekend, I decided to read the book by Coetzee. This was a bit of a surreal experience, reading a book based on a poem that is the basis of an opera. I really think these are my favorite types of stories, where a story is based on a smaller work and then new details are added to expand out the story into something new and more detailed. I think it's why I like movies based on short stories so much. The larger story line requires so much more detail that it takes on a life of its own that may be a completely different arc than the way I read the initial work. The original poem by Constatine Cavafy can be found here.

The poem left a feeling that the barbarians didn't actually exist. The thought of them was used to keep everyone on edge, feeling like they could be lurking around any corner. The public officials serve nearly exclusively to ward off a threat that may or may not be there.

The correlations to the fear-mongering current US administration were unbelievably clear and scary. It was reminiscent of the bogeyman and a naysayer all in one.

Then I read Coetzee's novel, and the barbarians really did exist. I kept expecting them not to, but this was one of those situations where the novel deviated from original root story, and it really resulted in a wholly different and interesting story.

At the most basic level, this is the story of a central government coming into a remote part of the country and asserting their power to make a stable situation into a war. But this is not even close to the point of the story. There are layers upon layers of nuance -- an old man trying to feel love again, an expedition into the root cause of prejudice and hatred, a study in pain and resilience. The book is masterfully written, and I can certainly see why the Nobel organization awarded Coetzee their prize in literature if the rest of his body of work are anything like this book. Absolutely recommended for a quick read while you're waiting in the airport.

I can't wait to see what the opera ends up being like.

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