Beginning with an unassuming description of dark glasses, Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee does not prepare you for the onslaught on your senses. Before the first chapter is over, you are hooked and know you’ve been blindsided. The narrator, Magistrate, (whose name you never discover) begins to pencil sketch his edge of the Empire outpost. Before you realize it, you are sucked into a story where most characters do not have names--it’s an allegory, after all--and where brutality and the commonplace co-exist unremarked.
The Magistrate describes his writing as: “ . . . the annals of an Imperial outpost or an account of how people of that outpost spent their last year composing their souls as they waited for the barbarians.” The suspense of waiting and the boredom of unrequited anticipation flood the story. Coetzee is telling us what goes on in the human heart when it finds itself lodged in a body, in a position with a title, which it discovers is contrary to its being.
As a parable, Waiting for the Barbarians is brilliant in its simplicity. Coetzee unfolds the deteriorating situation at the outpost (never given a precise location, since it can be Anywhere) when superior officers from internal governance of the Empire come bringing their bone-deep fear of “the barbarians” and the dangers of which these barbarians are believed to be capable. Suddenly a quiet outpost becomes the site of interrogations and tortures that the Magistrate finds both repulsive and under his jurisdiction. As he becomes enmeshed in the private lives of people around him, he recognizes that his heart is unaligned with the Empire and it will not go well for him.
Interspersed into the drama are poignant descriptions that read figuratively like the South Africa (1980) to which it alludes. "In the shelter of our homes, with the windows bolted and bolsters pushed agains the door, with fine grey dust sifting through roof and ceiling to settle on every uncovered surface, film the drinking water, grate on our teeth, we sit thinking of our fellow-creatures out in the open . . .” He reflects the quiet desperation of a people who sense their time is ending, wondering what the end will be like. This book is not an allegory of the expected revolution (as Gordimer’s July’s People would be the following year), but searches the hearts of those “waiting.”
As the story convolutes, Magistrate becomes involved with a barbarian woman, is then falsely accused, and is ultimately imprisoned. This bring the realization of how deep the rot of the Empire has gone, and he reflects: The new men of Empire are the ones who believe in 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. Magistrate helplessly sees the changing times, and futilely resists, with alarming self-awareness: a likely scenario reflective of how many white South Africans, confronted with disturbing facts, must have agonized in their souls. As the wheels of Injustice ground on, and he found himself under their tread, he became aware that the Empire would stop at nothing to rationalize its means to its end. (“the legal process is simply one instrument among many”) And some descriptions of the bodies which Magistrate viewed before burial surely sounded similar to accounts South Africans were reading in current newspapers.
Coetzee’s descriptions of life at the outpost: meals, conversations, sex, nature, travel, all blend together in a sense of lethargy until violence comes on the scene. This contrast is effective and shocks us into a new awareness.
When Magistrate sees a group of bound barbarian prisoners beaten publicly and the sickening response of a crowd in bloodlust, he wonders: What, after all, do I stand for besides a code of gentlemanly behaviour towards captured foes, and what do I stand against except the new science of degradation that kills people on their knees, confused and disgraced in their own eyes? The message of Waiting for the Barbarians is a reminder of the depths to which the human heart can sink when not on guard for itself, when allowing others to define justice on their terms. It is more than an allegory of the oppressor and oppressed: it is an exploration of the wilderness we find in ourselves when we cannot find truth north (our truest selves).
The agonized cry of the non-complicit South African is heard in Magistrate’s questions:
“Justice: once that word is uttered, where will it all end? . . . Easier to lay my head on a block than defend the cause of justice for the barbarian: for where can that argument lead but to laying down our arms and opening the gates of the town to the people whose land we have raped?” This is the closest Coetzee gets to indicting the system in which he lived. It is his voice as much as Magistrate’s who declares: I wanted to live outside the history that Empire imposes on its subjects, even its lost subjects. I never wished it for the barbarians that they should have the history of the Empire laid upon them. How can I believe that that is a cause for shame?
Wisely, Coetzee does not attempt to transcend into the minds and hearts of the barbarians: he found himself in the oppressor’s camp and expresses the heart lessons of one who accepted the challenge to look at the darkness within and wrestle with it. No wonder, then, that he along with Nadine Gordimer and André Brink are considered the three most distinguished white, anti-apartheid writers during that era. While he describes the internal battle, his gift of words flows full of sensory images that bring allegory to life and tap unnervingly on the windows of reality.
Like most allegories, this book must be absorbed to be understood. It tells a story of how things were: the mentality of waiting for imminent annihilation without understanding the enemy. As Magistrate finishes the book describing himself (now broken by torture and confusion): “like a man who lost his way long ago but presses on along a road that may lead nowhere.” We have much to learn by reading those who waited.