Claire reads Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee

Words by Claire Hielscher

Published on July 29, 2012

Sensuality, possession and redemption consistently dominant the landscape of J.M Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians. A crisis of conscience meets an unforgiving imperial force head-on, invigorating Coetzee’s work with both allegorical and historical power.

The Magistrate resides at the centre of a nameless town which fears the seemingly inevitable onslaught of the barbarians, a faceless people who reside in the wilderness beyond civilising walls. The realities of the decades of service to an equally faceless Empire begin to catch up with the Magistrate and materialise in the form of a nearly silent native girl, blinded and swaddled by the brutality of her torturers.

Coetzee’s main character of the Magistrate is simultaneously likeable and unsettling. His relationship with the young native girl wavers between the cathartic and the rapturously sensual. He finds solace in her presence through touch that is initially removed from any act of possession, sexual or otherwise. The imperial undertones that dominate the early sections of Waiting for the Barbarians develop into an wandering into the wilderness of the nameless landscape, constituting a most brilliant part of the novel.

Troubled by his uncharted feelings about the girl, and disconcerted about the interminable wait for the barbarians, now seemingly both inside and outside of the town’s walls, the Magistrate decides to take her back to her tribe. Accompanied by two soldiers and a guide, the Magistrate and the girl ride off on horseback on a dangerous journey into distant regions, an ordeal of cold, hunger and fear described with dazzling vividness. Continuing to chart the insecure inner state of being of the Magistrate, Coetzee demonstrates his own mastery of description of an outer event affecting in inner life. As he disappears into the world of the girl, the Magistrate vanishes from his position of power in the Empire. Left exposed to claims of betrayal, tyranny and traitor, he becomes at once martyr and outcast, still waiting for the barbarians to enter the landscape and change his own fate, whatever it may be.

Throughout Waiting for the Barbarians  Coetzee weaves a history of literature and imperialism into this novel which is entrenched with the consequences of empathy and the actions such decency inspires. Utilising sentiments and text derived from multitudinous  sources ranging from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, through to the alienation expressed in the work of Kafka, Coetzee proves himself to be a gifted and insightful recorder of the vacillation of human emotion, and loyalty. The Magistrate sits at the centre of this work as a constantly uncertain compass of morality. Sensually torn yet emphatically defensive of basic rights, the Magistrate moves full circle, describing his own journey as a foolish one, but ‘A fool in love is laughed at but in the end always forgiven’. In the face of his own losses and missed moments of clear communication, the Magistrate provides clarity to Coetzee’s vision of injustice, representing an image of man’s potential universality of empathy, standing strongly against regimes that foster ignorance, bigotry and racism.

 Claire Hielscher is a freelance art writer and reviewer from Brisbane. She completed a Bachelor of Arts (combined Honours in Art History and English Literature) at the University of Melbourne in 2011. Her work has been featured in Australian Art Collector.