Diary of a Bad Year

J.M. Coetzee – The New York Review of Books

A brief excerpt from the book, drawn from the July 19, 2007 issue of the NYRB. Copyright New York Review of Books
The Seven Samurai is a film in complete command of its medium yet naive enough to deal simply and directly with first things. Specifically it deals with the birth of the state, and it does so with Shakespearean clarity and comprehensiveness. In fact, what The Seven Samurai offers is no less than the Kurosawan theory of the origin of the state.
Nice day, I said. Yes, she said, with her back to me. Are you new? I said, meaning was she new to Sydenham Towers, though other meanings were possible too, Are you new on this earth?, for example. No, she said. How it creaks, getting a conversation going. I live on the ground floor, I said. I am allowed to make gambits like that, it will be put down to garrulity. Such a garrulous old man, she will remark to the owner of the pink shirt with the white collar, I had a hard time getting away from him, one doesn’t want to be rude. I live on the ground floor and have since 1995 and still I don’t know all my neighbors, I said. Yeah, she said, and no more, meaning, Yes, I hear what you say and I agree, it is tragic not to know who your neighbors are, but that is how it is in the big city and I have other things to attend to now, so could we let the present exchange of pleasantries die a natural death.
The story told in the film is of a village during a time of political disorder—a time when the state has in effect ceased to exist—and of the relations of the villagers with a troop of armed bandits. After years of descending upon the village like a storm, raping the women, killing those men who resist, and bearing away stored-up food supplies, the bandits hit on the idea of systematizing their visits, calling on the village just once a year to exact or extort tribute (tax). That is to say, the bandits cease being predators upon the village and become parasites instead.
One presumes that the bandits have other such “pacified” villages under their thumb, that they descend upon them in rotation, that in ensemble such villages constitute the bandits’ tax base. Very likely they have to fight off rival bands for control of specific villages, although we see none of this in the film.
The bandits have not yet begun to live among their subjects, having their wants taken care of day by day—that is to say, they have not yet turned the villagers into a slave population. Kurosawa is thus laying out for our consideration a very early stage in the growth of the state.
The main action of the film starts when the villagers conceive a plan of hiring their own band of hard men, the seven unemployed samurai of the title, to protect them from the bandits. The plan works, the bandits are defeated (the body of the film is taken up with skirmishes and battles), the samurai are victorious. Having seen how the protection and extortion system works, the samurai band, the new parasites, make an offer to the villagers: they will, at a price, take the village under their wing, that is to say, will take the place of the bandits. But in a rather wishful ending the villagers decline: they ask the samurai to leave, and the samurai comply.
She has black black hair, shapely bones. A certain golden glow to her skin, lambent might be the word. As for the bright red shift, that is perhaps not the item of attire she would have chosen if she were expecting strange male company in the laundry room at eleven in the morning on a weekday. Red shift and thongs. Thongs of the kind that go on the feet.
The Kurosawan story of the origin of the state is still played out in our times in Africa, where gangs of armed men grab power—that is to say, annex the national treasury and the mechanisms of taxing the population—do away with their rivals, and proclaim Year One. Though these African military gangs are often no larger or more powerful than the organized criminal gangs of Asia or Eastern Europe, their activities are respectfully covered in the media—even the Western media—under the heading of politics (world affairs) rather than crime.
One can cite examples of the birth or rebirth of the state from Europe too. In the vacuum of power left by the defeat of the armies of the Third Reich in 1944–1945, rival armed gangs scrambled to take charge of the newly liberated nations; who took power where was determined by who could call on what foreign army for backing.
Did anyone, in 1944, say to the French populace: Consider: the retreat of our German overlords means that for a brief moment we are ruled by no one. Do we want to end that moment, or do we perhaps want to perpetuate it—to become the first people in modern times to roll back the state? Let us, as French people, use our new and sudden freedom to debate the question without restraint. Perhaps some poet spoke the words; but if he did his voice must at once have been silenced by the armed gangs, who in this case and in all cases have more in common with each other than with the people.
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