J. M. Coetzee was born and raised in South Africa, a descendent of the Dutch colonists called Afrikaners. A linguist and literary scholar, he is one of the most highly honored contemporary writers. Among his many awards, Coetzee has twice received the prestigious Man Booker Prize. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003.
Waiting for the Barbarians, Coetzee’s third novel, explores themes such as self-knowledge, the causes of inhumanity, and the difference between historical time and natural time. The Magistrate comes to understand his own role in the oppression of the native people as “the lie that Empire tells itself when times are easy.” He also muses that the Empire, which is obsessed with its own preservation, forces people to live by historical time rather than by the seasonal rhythms of natural time. Children symbolize the ability to live in natural time. The novel’s final image of the town’s children building a snowman represents a return to life in harmony with nature.
The image of the children working on the snowman evokes another major theme: the body as a site of power. The Magistrate at first believes that Colonel Joll’s torture techniques are intended to uncover the truth. After he himself is tortured, he realizes that the torturer’s main goal is not to elicit a confession, truthful or otherwise, but simply to reduce the subject to a hurt body that can no longer resist through reasoning or language. While the body is vulnerable, however, it also resists in its own way, as the Magistrate learns when his sex drive and appetite reassert themselves as he recovers from his injuries.
Much of the critical discussion of Waiting for the Barbarians has focused on its historical and political context. Specifically, critics have examined how the nameless empire in Waiting for the Barbarians relates to the brutal policies of racial segregation in South Africa. These policies, collectively called apartheid, were maintained by the Afrikaner-led government from 1948 until 1994, when the democratically elected African National Congress took power. The novel, though, could be set in any country terrorized by an oppressive regime, or it could be viewed even more broadly as a critique of the effects of civilization. Coetzee has expressed ambivalence about the fact that he has been primarily identified as a South African writer.
Waiting for the Barbarians can also be viewed within the context of the development of literary allegory from the Middle Ages onward. In traditional allegory, such as the anonymous medieval play Everyman (late fifteenth century), characters do not possess psychological depth. They are types that stand for ideas such as Death, Knowledge, and Beauty. As a modern political allegory, Waiting for the Barbarians is more closely related to Franz Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony” (1914), in which names such as The Explorer and The Officer reflect the roles that the characters play within an unidentified colonial regime. The characters of Kafka are...
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