Of the several reviews I’ve seen of J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians there often seems to be a naive penchant to presume the fictional “Empire” in which the story takes place is the author’s homeland of South Africa.  Not that I maintain the story most certainly isn’t meant to be illustrative of South Africa’s troubles at the time it was written; more, I just mean that it would seem that this is unnecessarily limiting of what this book is trying to talk to us about.  But when Barbarians was first published in the early 1980’s, apparently there was very little American reflection upon the more generic catch-all of what and where empire exists as.  Reading this book today, not once did I transfer the nameless, timeless empire of the story to be Coetzee’s birthplace of South Africa: for one, I read the story to be a commentary- perhaps even a warning- of the self-serving and self-destructive nature of the “civilized” empire when juxtaposed against the “uncivilized” barbarian tribes who live on the outer frontiers.  If I thought of anything more than a kind of 1984-like tale which asks questions of power vs want, authority vs autonomy, it was certainly the U.S.’ empire that popped into my thoughts first.  But so it goes with the passage of time and the exacts of a truly good book: it transcends time and place and remains relevant and illuminating despite the shortsightedness of previous readers.

Waiting for the Barbarians takes place in a nameless, timeless empire that seems to take place in a wild West-like world before electricity and combustion have entered the picture.  Life revolves around securing food supplies for the coming winter, horses are the preferred mode of transport, and guns seem as common as more primitive weapons amongst those who gather armies.  The narrator of the tale is a local Magistrate who oversees a far-off and isolated frontier fort at the edge of the Empire’s domain.  Within the walls of the fortress, a small village of people has come to exist for the purpose of feeding and trading with the soldiers stationed there.  They live in a kind of symbiosis with nomads and tribes people of the local area, who occasionally arrive to trade their valuable furs and foods for the shinny (yet ultimately valueless) trinkets and wares from the “civilized” people of the outpost.

The high ranking Colonel Joll arrives one day, determined to gather information regarding the local band of (uncivilized) Barbarians who have reportedly taken to raiding nearby frontier outposts (as is apparently the case from time to time).  The Barbarians represent a kind of omnipresent outside threat which seeks to trample on the security and safety of the people of the Empire.  Though the Magistrate has seen no evidence of a gathering Barbarian menace, and though he knows they have no clear designs to engage in a battle against the frontier fortress’ of the Empire, he resigns to the fact that soon the Colonel will be done with his work and will return to the Capital and the quiet life of their isolated settlement will return to it’s peaceful normalcy.

Only, the expedition to bring back Barbarian prisoners is dubious, and Col. Joll’s captives seem to the Magistrate to be little more than nomadic heathens, rather than a Barbarian army preparing to strike at the mighty empire.  The Magistrate struggles to understand the barbarian manner in which Col. Joll goes about questioning his prisoners for intelligence: torture.  In the end, the captives “confess” and give the Colonel details of their tribe’s whereabouts and plans, though we never do discover if their answers were factual or coerced confessions of tortured prisoners.  Perhaps our only clue to the answer is the fact that the Barbarian attack never comes.

In the aftermath of the torturing, one prisoner is left dead and another, a young, black haired woman, is left partially blind.  For reasons that he himself isn’t sure of, the Magistrate takes the young girl under his wing, and brings her back to his quarters.  There, though they sleep beside each other and he massages her and caresses her, their relationship hardly becomes more physical and we’d struggle to try and call it a “romance”.  He gives her a job in the kitchen cooking for the soldiers and bureaucrats, and aside from that spends his evenings with her wondering what it is he wants from her.

As the Magistrate struggles with the rationale of the visiting Colonel, his loyalty to the empire comes into question.  He fills his days with unauthorized archeological expeditions in the desert, garbled self-reflections of his benign oversight of the outpost, and with occasional sexual trysts with young maidens in the hotel.  The aging Magistrate, because of his authority, seems to have his choice of most any unmarried woman in the fort, and though his age sometimes impedes him, he brings himself to these women at his discretion and with little rumination on the arbitrary authority in which he does.

When the empire’s army arrives in preparation to set-out and destroy the Barbarians, the Magistrate finds himself finally arrested and accused of treason- of aiding and abetting the Barbarians.  He has embarked on a dangerous and unauthorized excursion to return the young black haired woman to her people, and in doing so he finds no one who believes his motives to be other than collusion.  True, not even he understands what motivated him to set-out to return her to her people, but his outrage at the pompous and erroneous logic of the military officials does him no good.  Imprisoned, starved, tortured and  beaten, the Magistrate becomes the fallen hero, humiliated and cast-off by his once indifferent though loyal subjects.  Months pass as the people of the fort wait impatiently for the army to return victorious from their battle with the Barbarians.

Waiting for the Barbarians, through the eyes of the Magistrate, takes us from complacency to compassion, from authority to cooperation, and from rote loyalty to individual responsibly.  Hardly a moment of the story doesn’t read like a what to expect next playbook from the American Empire of the early Twenty-First Century.  Likewise, hardly a moment doesn’t call upon the subjects of empire to see more clearly the folly of their “civilized” society and it’s fears.

Just as much as we may find truly spectacular and horrific questions in nearly every passage of Coetzee’s text, we also must cherish this book for the shear weight of the author’s language- his artistry with the written word puts him in the proudest of company.  He is elusive, straightforward, terrifying, and familiar, sometimes all in a word or two.  If nothing else, perhaps my enthusiasm can be summed up this way: I bought this book moments after finishing one Coeztee novel, and upon finishing it, went out and immediately bought another.

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