Waiting for the Barbarians Additional Summary

J. M. Coetzee


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Waiting for the Barbarians is the meditative and melancholy tale of an aging colonial magistrate’s futile struggle against the stupidity, brutality, and racism of a government which he has served complacently all of his life. The unnamed magistrate is reluctant to take any action which would disrupt the pleasant and secure course of his life; he wishes to serve out his days “on this lazy frontier, waiting to retire,” spending his time engaged in “hunting and hawking and placid concupiscence.” Yet he goes gradually from being the reluctant associate of Colonel Joll, one of the Empire’s “new men,” to being an enemy and then a victim of Joll and the Empire. Waiting for the Barbarians charts the course of the magistrate’s curious rebellion and records his emotional and philosophical struggles with his changing role.

The novel opens with the arrival of Colonel Joll at the border town where the magistrate is the chief administrator. Joll has come under “emergency powers” to investigate reports that the barbarian tribes are preparing for war. Joll, a specialist in interrogation, investigates the rumors by torturing first an old man and his grandson (the man dies) and then a pitiful group of nomadic peoples and aborigines whom he has captured on an expedition into the frontier wilderness.

When Joll completes his inquiries into the “truth” and departs for the capital, the magistrate attempts to repair the damage done by Joll and to revive the old, peaceful ways of life. One barbarian woman, whose ankles Joll broke and whose eyes he punctured in his search for the truth, is left behind when the prisoners are released and return to the barbarian lands. The magistrate takes her into his household and concentrates on this abandoned young woman his compulsive efforts both to dissociate himself from the Third Bureau and to atone for the sins of the Bureau and his complicity in those sins. Furthermore, he is, at his age, increasingly concerned about what makes life worth living, about how and if one can resist torture or evil or complicity with evil. As a member of a civilized, patriarchal society, he has been led to believe that value is associated with reason, power, and material comfort. He is desperate to understand how this barbarian girl could have lived through the pain and humiliation of torture; how she, in her crippled state, is able to laugh, to smile, to accept her fate, and to live in a positive way. His ritualistic care for the girl (every night he bathes and dries her, massages her feet and ankles, and anoints her naked body with almond oil) is on the surface the opposite of Joll’s brutalization of her, but the magistrate comes to recognize that the reality of the...

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