When Irving Howe reviewed J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians for the NY Times in 1982, he touched on the concern that Coetzee’s “universalized” (which is to say unnamed and fictional) Empire would “be ‘elevated’ into sterile ruminations about the human condition.” At the time of course, it was Coetzee’s South Africa, that obvious villain of the last half of the last century, that Coetzee’s crumbling Empire represented.
25 years later, Coetzee’s choice to craft a novel about a nameless, malignant Empire seems prescient, as it turns out that other Empires can be viewed through the lens of the novel. Recent events have made the effect even more striking. As Howe goes on to add, “Waiting for the Barbarians renders a moment in our politics, a style of our injustice. Precisely this power of historical immediacy gives the novel its thrust, its larger and, if you wish, ‘universal’ value.”
Some plot summary will be useful here: Barbarians is told in the first person by a character known as the Magistrate, a benign bureaucrat comfortably ensconced in a settlement in the outer frontiers of a sprawling Empire. As happens from time to time, the Empire has become exercised by an outside force, its usual nemesis, the Barbarians, roaming bands of nomads that live beyond the Empire’s frontiers and always, it seems, present a threat to the heartland from the periphery. In the policies of the Empire and its bureaucrats and enforcers, this threat gives it license to throw its weight around. The Magistrate, meanwhile, is something of a softy, taken to indulging in women and rather aimless hobbies and more than satisfied to be positioned well beyond the notice of the officials in the capital. That is, until Colonel Joll and his men arrive on orders to take on the Barbarians that roam beyond the settlement walls. Ultimately, the Magistrate objects to the torture and ineptitude practiced by the soldiers in their dealings with the Barbarians and he is labeled if not a traitor, then someone of too weak a constitution to be trusted with the aims of the Empire. He too is subject to torture and humiliation.
Much of the book takes place in the Magistrate’s head, both because he leads an isolated life and because for a portion of the novel he is in prison, with not much else to do but think. While the machinations of the Empire are very easily compared to those of our government and others’, the Magistrate’s inner monologue is no less comparable to the inner struggles of citizens of these “Empires.” Though the Magistrate’s moral compass is intact, he has grown fat and weak on the largesse of the Empire. We are left to wonder, are the Magistrate’s failings personality flaws or are they inescapable byproducts of our desire to live comfortably, even if it means that, as a result, others somewhere in the world are not?
Allegories aside, the book is a fairly stunning, brisk read, dystopian and thoughtful. Coetzee’s Empire is finely wrought as are the people who dwell within it and without. Perhaps Coetzee had South Africa in mind when he created the Empire, but Barbarians will forever illuminate the price of power and hegemony.