Book Review: 'Waiting for the Barbarians,' By J.M. Coetzee | This week, the Senate released a report that details the interrogation techniques used by the CIA after Sept. 11. Author Laila Lalami grapples with the questions it raises by turning to literature.
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The Ethics Of Torture, Explored In A Painful Fable

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The Ethics Of Torture, Explored In A Painful Fable

Review

The Ethics Of Torture, Explored In A Painful Fable

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We've been hearing this week about the enhanced and also described as brutal interrogation techniques used by the CIA after 9/11. Among the questions these techniques raise are whether they're legal, effective and morally acceptable. As we do each week, we're turning to literature for some perspective. Today, it's a book by J.M. Coetzee titled "Waiting For The Barbarians." It's suggested by novelist Laila Lalami.

LAILA LALAMI, BYLINE: The book begins in an unnamed empire. An old magistrate is living a quiet life at a border outpost. He spends his days settling small disputes and his nights stargazing in the open fields. And then, a colonel arrives from the capital. There are rumors that a rebellion is brewing among the empire's barbarian tribes. He's here to investigate, and there are a couple of suspects in custody. At first, the magistrate cooperates. He talks to the prisoners, urges them to tell the truth. But they show signs of torture and one of them turns up dead. Doubt grows in the magistrate's mind. What if your prisoner is telling the truth, he asks, yet finds he is not believed? But the colonel can't believe anything a prisoner says unless it's extracted through pain.

Pain is truth, Coetzee writes - all else is subject to doubt. Eventually the magistrate stops following orders, and that's when he is tortured. Now he sees that his body can entertain notions of justice only as long as it is whole and well, he says, but forgets them when its head is gripped and a pipe is pushed down its gullet and pints of salt water are poured into it.

"Waiting For The Barbarians" was written in 1980 during the apartheid regime in South Africa. But what it says about torture is still true. The state can't fight barbarity and validate it at the same time.

CORNISH: The book is "Waiting For The Barbarians" by J.M. Coetzee. It was recommended by Laila Lalami. Her latest novel is "The Moor's Account."

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