Third reading. As I’ve previously mentioned, the word barbarian comes up dozens of times in this novel. The implication as we watch the commandant slowly becoming more and more disillusioned with his position, with his empire, and with himself, is that he is becoming more and more a barbarian. This is not to say that he’s becoming more savage, but that he is becoming less and less an insider and more and more an outsider. It’s important to remember that barbarian is a word assigned to a people from within the empire, not a word they assign themselves.
This book is presented as a kind of allegory, in that, especially it avoids specific historical markers. And in this way it’s presented as a kind of dystopia. It’s also a kind of foil of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In that novel, we watch someone observe the degradation of an empire through its effects on a commandant of a camp. Here we get the same thing, but now we’re in the role more of Kurtz, but who does not become more violent, but less so. The question this raises is not what happens when you become corrupted by the violence of an oppressive system, but happens when you try to extricate from the system. Of course, you can’t really, not fully, and not morally. But more so it shifts you from someone who is complicit and active, to someone who is able to be sacrificed to it. In this novel, quietly.
“Where civilization entailed the corruption of barbarian virtues and the creation of dependent people, I decided, I was opposed to civilization.”
“One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation.”