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J M Coetzee: Waiting for the Barbarians

The narrator is a magistrate in a small, out of the way settlement on the frontier between two countries. On the one side is his country – the Empire – and on the other, the barbarians. The barbarians have always been quiet and caused little trouble for the magistrate except for petty crimes but now there is talk of unrest. Maybe some of the different barbarian tribes have united. Colonel Joll from the Third Bureau is sent out to”interrogate” prisoners. The magistrate’s easy life is now disrupted as the Colonel goes on an expedition to find prisoners to interrogate.

The war against the barbarians intensifies including, of course, the use of barbaric methods but the magistrate, a poor petty official waiting out his retirement, is out of his depth. He tries to assist the barbarians but, when he makes a trip out into his territory to visit them, he is arrested for consorting with the enemy. He is tormented and humiliated by Joll and his men but never brought to trial but then Joll and his men go off hunting the barbarians and the magistrate drifts back into his old ways. Do the barbarians exist? Will Joll and his men capture them? It doesn’t really matter for Coetzee is concerned not with a war against barbarians but the inner effects of such a war, how it changes the those making war, makes them barbarians. Of course, the analogy here is clear – the barbarians are the blacks and the magistrate, Joll and Co are the whites in South Africa – but it could be anywhere, anywhere where we have created an enemy.

Publishing history

First published 1980 by Secker and Warburg