09/08/2010 11:51 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Wisest, Most Relevant Novel About 9/11 Was Published in 1980

Hard to know whom we're supposed to hate the most. Mexican immigrants had the lead for most of the year, but Muslims are now at the head of the pack. I've seen some blather about "Jewish media." And as for African-Americans -- as Chris Rock says, "That train ain't never late."

It's a good time to read the best book ever written about 9/11 and its legacy in America -- even though it was published 30 years ago.

The South African novelist J.M. Coetzee writes with a pen that's sharp as a knife, in ink made from his own blood. Or so it seems, for each word seems carved or cut, obtained at great price, offered as a sacrifice. "Fun" reading? Not at all. [His best book is the least fun: Disgrace, one of the more devastating books ever penned.] Necessary reading? Now more than ever -- the 160 pages of Waiting for the Barbarians are eye-openers, and they'll keep your eyes open long after you close the book. [To buy Barbarians from Amazon, click here.]

Coetzee won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. That's even more impressive because his literary career is comparatively brief; he didn't produce his first book until 1974. Waiting for the Barbarians -- the novel that established him as an Important Writer -- was published in 1980. In those days, it was viewed as an allegory of South Africa, Coetzee's homeland. To read it now is to read a very different book.

The title comes from a poem by Constantine Cavafy. It begins with great expectation of a visit from the "barbarians." The Emperor awakes early, Senators gather, military men put on plumage. The day passes. Finally ...

... night is here but the barbarians have not come.
And some people arrived from the borders,
and said that there are no longer any barbarians.

And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were some kind of solution.

In his novel, Coetzee asks: Who are these barbarians? And what purpose do they serve?

The character who narrates the novel -- and who tries to answer these questions -- is not an exceptional man. Far from it. He says of himself:

I am a country magistrate, a responsible official in the service of the Empire, serving out my days on this lazy frontier, waiting to retire. I collect the tithes and taxes, administer the communal lands, see that the garrison is provided for, supervise the junior officers who are the only officers we have here, keep an eye on trade, preside over the law-court twice a week. For the rest I watch the sun rise and set, eat and sleep and am content.

When I pass away I hope to merit three lines of small print in the Imperial gazette. I have not asked for more than a quiet life in quiet times.

Just like a great many people.

But to this dusty outpost of the Empire comes Colonel Joll. The Colonel has news: There are barbarians in the mountains. And he and his troops ride out to find them. When he returns, the Magistrate is surprised to see who they are: simple peasants and vagrants who represent no threat to the Empire.

Colonel Joll interrogates the prisoners. His methods are crude, cruel and effective:

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.

Or as the Magistrate sardonically restates the torturer's creed: ''Pain is truth; all else is subject to doubt.''

Meanwhile, the Magistrate befriends a young female prisoner and, after a while, decides to return her to her family in the mountains.

That is a mistake. So is wondering aloud about the Colonel's analysis of the situation and his interrogation tactics. Clearly, the Magistrate is not to be trusted. Indeed, he must be...a traitor. And so he is charged with treason and jailed:

When (the torturers) first brought me back here ... I wondered how much pain a plump comfortable old man would be able to endure in the name of his eccentric notions of how the Empire should conduct itself. But my torturers were not interested in degrees of pain. They were interested only in demonstrating to me what it meant to live in a body, as a body, a body which can entertain notions of justice only as long as it is whole and well, which very soon forgets them when its head is gripped and a pipe is pushed down its gullet and pints of salt water are poured into it. ... They came to my cell to show me the meaning of humanity, and in the space of an hour they showed me a great deal.

In 1980, Coetzee's allegory was a simple one. The Barbarians were the blacks of South Africa. The Empire was the white-ruled South African government. The Magistrate, a Christ surrogate, represented the good intentions of enlightened whites whose wish to "help" only led to more trouble. Were this a limited historical allegory, we could read this book at a distance -- or not at all. But Waiting for the Barbarians, like all great stories, has different meanings in different times. You cannot help but substitute "terrorists" for "barbarians" as you read this book. And the torture scenes.... But you know all this. So what's in it this book for you? Only this: We live in a time when we will be tested (or are already being tested). Who are our barbarians? What purpose do they serve? And who, in the end, are we?

[Cross-posted from]