Waiting for the Barbarians

Book Review – Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee

The new men of Empire are the ones who believe in new chapters, fresh starts, new chapters, clean pages. I struggle on with the old story, hoping that before it is finished it will reveal to me why it was that I thought it worth the trouble. (Page 24)

Through Waiting for the Barbarians J. M. Coetzee illuminated the darker side of Empire. The author eloquently showed how the distinction between the savage and the civilized could become blurred when cultures find themselves in conflict. A timeless literary event resulted.

Mr. Coetzee’s novel told the story of an unnamed narrator living in an outpost in the “Empire.” The author never identified the country. He never provided the protagonist’s name; he only identified him as a “magistrate.”

This character possessed a much more realistic view of the society than his countrymen did.

There is a time of year, you know, when the nomads visit us to trade. Well: go to any stall in the market during that time and see who gets short-weighted and cheated and shouted at and bullied. See who is forced to leave his womenfolk behind in the camp for fear they will be insulted by the soldiers. See who lies drunk in the gutter, and see who kicks him where he lies. It is this contempt for the barbarians, contempt which is shown by the meanest ostler or peasant farmer, that I as magistrate have had to contend with for twenty years. How do you eradicate contempt, especially when that contempt is founded on nothing more substantial than table manners, variations in the structure of the eyelid? (Page 50)

While critical of the way his people treated the barbarians, this narrator also questioned his own behavior towards them. Here’s an excerpt where his “barbarian” girlfriend confronted him about his lack of fidelity.

“You visit other girls,” she whispers. “You think I do not know.”

“I make a peremptory gesture for her to be quiet.

“Do you also treat them like this?” she whispers, and starts to sob.

Though my heart goes out to her, there is nothing I can do. Yet what humiliation for her! She cannot even leave the apartment without tottering and fumbling while she dresses. She is as much a prisoner now as ever before. I pat her hand and sink deeper into gloom. (Page 54)

When he stopped sharing his bed with her, he explained:

She adapts without complaint to the new pattern. I tell myself she submits because of her barbarian upbringing. But what do I know of barbarian upbringings? (Page 54)

Later in the story, he expressed the following thoughts on another one of his “barbarian” women.

Only days since I parted from that other one, and I find her face hardening over in my memory, becoming opaque, impermeable, as though secreting a shell over itself. Plodding across the salt I catch myself in a moment of astonishment that I could have loved someone from so remote a kingdom. (Page 74)

The author chose to write the book in the present tense. Because of that, it made the narrative much more engaging. It gave the story a sense of immediacy while increasing the tension.

I thought the book very well written and without flaw…until just before the end. I didn’t like the way the author chose to insert Mai as a character. I won’t give away spoilers, but will comment that I found the introduction too abrupt. The character’s presence did contribute to the story’s progression, however.

The narrator made a curious comment towards the book’s conclusion.

Let it at the very least be said, if it ever comes to be said, if there is every anyone in some remote future interested to know the way we lived, that in this farthest outpost of the Empire of light there existed one man who in his heart was not a barbarian. (Page 102)

That statement made me think this book a veiled reference to the author’s take on his native South Africa at the time of its 1980 publication.