Waiting for the Barbarians Summary

JM Coetzee

Waiting for the Barbarians

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Waiting for the Barbarians Summary

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Waiting for the Barbarians, Nobel laureate John Maxwell Coetzee’s 1980 novel, centers around racial strife and power struggles in a fictional colonial village. Though the colonial Empire and the land’s native population are never identified, it is generally understood that the novel was written to reflect the political situation of South Africa. In Waiting for the Barbarians, Coetzee explores both the violence and terror inherent in a colonial system from the perspective of a deeply conflicted representative of that system.

The novel is set in an isolated colonial outpost managed by an unnamed, totalitarian colonial power called the Empire. The garrison is occupied by colonial representatives, including the main character and narrator, a magistrate approaching retirement. The local, native population are referred to as the “barbarians.”

Colonel Joll, a high-ranking Empire man, arrives at the garrison to investigate rumors of an impending barbarian uprising. The magistrate gives him a tour, and the two debate the effectiveness of torture to elicit truthful confessions—the magistrate doubts that it is effective, while Colonel Joll is a strong proponent. A barbarian family (a young boy, his mother, and her father) has been caught on their way into the town, and though they state they only wished to see a doctor, Joll tortures them despite the magistrate’s objections. The grandfather is killed during the proceedings. The magistrate tries to distance himself from the incident, but this becomes more difficult as Joll imprisons and tortures more and more barbarians. When Joll eventually leaves for another garrison, the magistrate guiltily helps the surviving prisoners recover.

One day, the magistrate encounters a blind beggar girl and eventually brings her to his house. While bathing her, he sees that she has been tortured. The magistrate is torn between his desire to help her and his desire to sleep with her, but the girl resists offers of affections, cleaning and cooking for him instead. It is winter, and the rebel barbarians do not invade, due to the cold. The barbarians inside the town drink and create trouble, something the magistrate blames on the Empire’s influence. The magistrate continues to struggle with his complex relationship with the girl. He decides she belongs with her own people and they travel south, along with four soldiers.

On the trip, the girl opens up and she and the magistrate begin a sexual relationship. Along the way, the group encounters a band of barbarians ahead of them. After some internal struggle, the girl decides to join the barbarian band. As the magistrate and his soldiers return back to the garrison, they are met by a group of hostile soldiers, who escort them inside. An Empire official accuses the magistrate of conspiring with the barbarians and imprisons him. After a few days of misery and introspection, the magistrate escapes from his cell, but after seeing the ruined crops outside the garrison, knows he’ll never survive. He returns to his cell. He later watches and tries to stop the torture of some barbarians, and is himself assaulted.

The magistrate is brought before Colonel Joll, who informs him that the magistrate is relieved of his duties. When the magistrate refuses to tell Joll about his interactions with the barbarians, he is tortured. The magistrate is released, surviving only because of the kindness of remaining friends. Rumors spread that the soldiers sent to subdue the invading barbarians are all dead. Settlers abandon the town. People hear that the barbarians are camped only a few miles away and barricade themselves in the town. The army departs from the garrison, pillaging goods from the locals and raping with impunity. The magistrate stays, taking up residence in his old apartment, now robbed of all his belongings.

The town’s remaining inhabitants are terrified of the impending invasion. The magistrate takes charge, helping the people plant root vegetables to survive the winter. Colonel Joll arrives at the garrison to resupply on food and horses. He finds no food and no horses and is driven out of camp by the magistrate and the locals. The magistrate learns that the army was defeated by the barbarians without any violence—the barbarians simply stole all the army’s horses, leaving the soldiers to die. The magistrate recovers from his torture and thinks of the girl who once lived with him. He is ashamed of what the Empire has done to this country and its people, and will never forgive himself for the role he played. When he thinks about how he would document life in the garrison, he decides he would do so according to the seasons, not chronological events, as better befits what he believes is a paradise on earth. As the first snow falls, the barbarians still have not invaded.

Through the eyes of the magistrate, the reader witnesses his journey from a man cautiously indifferent to the suffering of the natives to a rebel of the colonial system, abandoned by his countrymen and determined to protect those he once considered barbarians. Coetzee uses this novel to challenge and explore notions of justice. The magistrate once considered himself a representative of Western, civilized justice, but the events of the novel radically alter his perspective. The justice system he once championed not only dehumanizes the natives, who are tortured and degraded, but dehumanizes the soldiers as well, who exploit the unequal application of justice as they pillage, rape, and murder without consequence.