J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians is an exploration of a horrific world of oppression, torture, callousness, and human suffering. The novel takes place in a settlement at an unspecified time in an unspecified country in which colonizers and natives have lived for several decades. A Magistrate rules the colony and has lived peacefully with both groups for years. As the novel begins, Colonel Joll, a representative of the Empire, arrives, spreading fear among the settlers by telling them that the natives present a great threat. Colonel Joll’s arrival disrupts the peaceful colony and creates an atmosphere of suspicion and conflict. The settlers and natives, who had coexisted peacefully before, now find themselves pitted against each other. While the Empire deems the natives “barbarous,” in fact it is the Empire itself that becomes increasingly barbarous as the novel progresses, losing all regard for human dignity, spirit, and respect. The quality deemed most odious in the Barbarians—savagery in its many forms—is amply displayed by the actions and attitudes of the Empire’s men.
The Barbarians are a threatening and potentially rebellious presence in the eyes of the Empire. In Colonel Joll’s view, the Barbarians are the enemy, and if they are rising in revolt, they must be beaten back. When Colonel Joll arrives, he immediately begins rounding up whatever natives he comes across in order to interrogate them about recent raids on the Empire’s livestock. Despite the Magistrate’s protests that the natives are merely simple fishermen who had no involvement with the raids, Colonel Joll insists that the small raids are a precursor to war. The Magistrate responds that “[t]his so-called banditry does not amount to much. They steal a few sheep or cut out a pack animal from a train. Sometimes we raid them in return. They are mainly destitute tribespeople with tiny flocks of their own living along the river. It becomes a way of life” (4). Despite the Magistrate’s assurance that there is no barbarian uprising, Colonel Joll continues to capture the natives and torture them for information.
While Joll believes the natives must be held down to prevent an invasion of the Empire’s settlement, the action of the novel makes it clear that it is the Empire itself, which is the invasive, alien force. The natives, called Barbarians by the invaders, in warding off the Imperial troops, stand to lose the most: their identity, their land, their freedom. In efforts to defeat the Barbarians, Colonel Joll and his soldiers burn all the trees by the town’s river in an attempt to destroy anything the natives could use as cover or camouflage. By doing this, they kill untold numbers of animals not quick enough to escape the blaze. The fire also causes the soil along the shore to erode and facilitates the expansion of the desert. The so-called “civilized” soldiers of the Empire are not just battling the natives; they are waging a war against the land itself. The Imperials fail to see the irony of their situation as invaders in the homeland of the Barbarians. They fail to recognize themselves as foreign, and instead assume their superiority, legitimacy, and indisputable right over the natives and the land the natives inhabit.
The Magistrate, however, who until this time has kept order in the settlement, represents a clearer vision of the destructive impact that the imperial invasion has had on the native culture:
Throughout the novel, the qualities that have been attributed to the Barbarians by the Imperials—immorality, filthiness and stupidity, in particular—can be seen as qualities possessed by the Imperials themselves. For example, Joll does not heed the Magistrate’s strenuous warnings against the capture of harmless prisoners from a fishing village, and his ignorance leads to the embarrassing and violent defeat of the foolhardy expedition. Still, Colonel Joll comes rolling back in his carriage from his philistine journey; he never listens and never learns from his errors. Similarly, the squalid living conditions of the natives are shown to be a result of their subjugation. When the first large group of natives is captured and imprisoned by Colonel Joll, they let their waste pile up in the corner of the yard and have to be told to bury it. When one of their babies dies, the mother keeps it under the blanket with her. However, once the Magistrate is imprisoned for helping the woman he loves escape, we see that he too is not allowed to cleanse himself, his clothes, or his room--even of human waste. These conditions become normalized to such a degree that, even when he is released from prison, he has to be forced to clean himself and put on clothes. By being treated as a Barbarian, the Magistrate himself loses the qualities attributed to “civilized” people.
The most decisively “barbarous” characteristic of the Empire is its rampant immorality, matched only by savage brutality. The imprisonment and interrogation process that the author describes includes beatings, various forms of hanging, starvation, as well as deprivation, isolation, and public humiliation of prisoners. At the Magistrate’s final turning point, when Joll brandishes a hammer to bludgeon the prisoners, the Magistrate is outraged at the treatment, screaming that even an animal would not receive this kind of torture. The indignities inflicted on the prisoners constitute a complete breakdown of the moral fibers of the torturers. All the brutality that is committed is in pursuit of elusive evidence against the enigmatic Barbarians and increasingly obsequious prisoners, hinting at a deeply troubled regime unable to distinguish right from wrong, or at least the justifiable from the unjust. The Magistrate questions one of the torturers, asking him how he can go on with his normal life. The Magistrate sees, as he tells Joll, that “[t]he crime that is latent in us we must inflict on ourselves. . . not others” (146). Recognition of internal barbarity must be dealt with within the self, not through shameless and unsatisfying attacks on others.
The settlers in Waiting for the Barbarians do experience the terror they have anticipated and sought to prevent, but this terror takes a different form from the one they expected. While Joll aims to protect the settlement from the natives, it is the Empire itself that becomes “barbarous.” The regime proves itself more savage in its behavior and philosophy towards those perceived to be Barbarians. During his final meeting with Colonel Joll, the Magistrate points a finger at Joll, calling out the true nature of his actions: “[Y]ou are the enemy, Colonel...you have made the war” (112). The Magistrate, having made the journey from citizen to barbarian, ultimately recognizes the Empire’s true barbarity. As the novel progresses, its action, not set in any specific time or place, begins to represent a universal struggle—one in which the horror of Imperialism and human potential for cruelty are laid bare.
Coetzee, J.M. Waiting for the Barbarians. New York: Penguin Books, 1982.