Waiting for the Barbarians

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"...and to write such a history no one would seem to be better fitted than our last magistrate."

J.M. Coetzee, "Waiting for the Barbarians"

Book Cover: www.amazon.co.uk


Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M Coetzee centers on the numbered days of an old Magistrate. He lived his entire life in a town on the edge of the empire’s power, where native inhabitants known as “the barbarians” leave nearby relics and trade with the empire. As his days wind down, the barbarians are deemed an eminent threat, turning the Magistrate’s world upside down. He was hoping for a life of peace and quiet where his retirement would come with ease and no conflict in which to preside over, but instead has to reconsider his own identity, what he believes in and what he knows the empire to be as the modern empire and the past collide.


In the "modern" entry, of the Keywords essay, Chandan Reddy gives a few interpretations of what modern means and has meant. One interpretation Reddy gives is that modernity is contrasted with "backwardness", which can be thought of as anything from the past (Reddy 161). Modern societies include "mass citizenship, official bureaucracy, a national division of labor, long-term capital accumulation, the separation of social spheres, organized leisure, rational individualism, secularization, and state monopoly on violence across a geographically bounded society" and serve "as the measure of human perfectibility" (Reddy 161). Any society not possessing these features is considered "old" or "primitive."

Sunglasses in the novel were a representation of the modernity of the Empire

"Whole societies, peoples, and art forms were now classifiable as primitive, degenerate, or modern, with the latter positioned at the leading edge of historical time and serving as the measure of human perfectibility" (Reddy 161). In Waiting for the Barbarians, the novel opens with the magistrate's description of Colonel Joll's sunglasses. The protagonist is mesmerized by this new invention, and after explaining their purpose Colonel Joll concludes "at home everyone wears them." Even though the magistrate's town is encompassed by the Empire, the visiting officer makes a clear distinction between "home" and his current outpost. He is subtly emphasizing that the magistrate's town is not progressive or modern like the heart of the nation, and he considers himself to be a more modern, cultured man than the ignorant folks at the edge of civilization, than the magistrate himself.

"To designate a thing, practice, place, or person as "modern" is to point to the signs by which reflexive acts of interpretation identify the modern condition" (Reddy 161). The Magistrate outlines the signs of civilization bestowed by the Empire when he imagines the barbarians coming into the town. He thinks "but when the barbarians taste bread, new bread and mulberry jam... they will find that they are unable to live without the skills of men" (Coetzee 155). Even with winter drawing close, the magistrate talks about how the town is in denial that the Empire's trained soldiers have been tested by barbarians, who they see as illiterate men that do not bathe and use primitive weapons. The Empire bestowed confidence in the townspeople by promising them that they are a part of the nation's future, and the barbarian tribes are men of the past. Yet the magistrate still looks at the past for answers, whether it's by examining the poplar slips, trying to interpret the scars on the girl's body, to inerpret what civilization and modernism is, or even when trying to create his own written account of the town's histroy.

In this story the one character that represents modernity, Colonel Joll, also has the most character flaws. This contradiction allows the reader to make their own interpretaions of what constitutes a modern individual or society. Colonel Joll comes from a modern society, but he uses "primitive" forms of interrogation such as torture. Furthermore, Joll, along with the rest of the empire, have a natural hatred and distrust of the barbarians even though their is no apparent reason why they should. A past that is unknown to them leads the empire and connects it to violent acts towards the barbarians to construct a more modern empire. On the other hand, the barbarians (the primitive society) are portrayed as the victims of the Empire's unjustified campaign, even gaining the sympathies of the Magistrate (a member of the empire). These representations of modern vs. primitive reflect the idea the the most modern and powerful societies aren't necessarily the most moral group of people. Being civilized and correct aren't inherent qualities of being modern. It seems as thought Coetzee is hoping the reader comes to this conclusion to then pose the question of what "barbarian" really is and to once again show the paradoxy of the empire as they use "barbaric" or old-fashion ways (such as torture) to define thier place in a continum between ancient and modern.


Xerxes, the "writer" of History. This whole account of history reminds me of the movie 300 (based on history), where Xerxes tells Leonidas that once he destroys Sparta and takes over the world, there will not be so much as the mention of the name of Leonidas or the Spartans lest their tongues be taken from their mouths and all of Sparta will be blotted out from history. But, as we all know, they became a legend. History is fragile and can be influenced by whoever obtains enough power to do so. This is the 300 movie trailer. At the end Leonidas says, "Before this battle is over THE WORLD WILL KNOW that few stood against many". He was making his own attempt to write history with the help of the 300, similar to the magistrate attempting to write his history.

1) History as a process of interpretations: There is a distinct pattern within Waiting for the Barbarians of an attempt to discover history as something that is often unknown or a mystery, something that is buried within social structures, intentionally hidden or even physical structures like the sand covering the ruins. The marks on the girl’s body became a source of this kind of frustration of longing to know the history of what had happened. The Magistrate obsessed over these marks, wondering what exactly had happened to her to create all these scars, contemplating: ”is it she I want or the traces of a history her body bears?” (Coetzee 64). He is struggling with finding the true source of his desires for her-- searching for answers. Allegory such as her scars are scattered through out the story as riddles to ponder on. There are many possible interpretations to these many mysteries. History isn't necessarily about arriving at the right answer(s). History is about finding and ruminating about all of the possibilities.

2) History as in the hands of the victors: The novel also uncovers history as something subjective, and written by those in charge. When the Magistrate is being interviewed by the Colonel, they begin to confront their places in “history”. The Colonel asks him, “You want to go down in history as a martyr, I suspect. But who is going to put you in the history books?” (Coetzee 114). The colonel taunts the Magistrate for his lack of significance and power. He flaunts the power that he possesses from the armies and sovereign empire that merit his authority. With the power of soldiers and government, he suggests that only people like him can write history. This idea relates to the concept that only the winners of war and the victorious write history. The ability to write history does not extend to the common people or even a person such as the Magistrate, only the winners and those in powerful enough positions possess the opportunity.

3) History as an individual truth: At end of the novel, the Magistrate tries to record history on his own, but has trouble coming up with the right words to express the true history. He tries to understand the contempt toward the barbrians to understand the history but does not even know where to begin as he says, "especially when the content is founded on nothing more substantial than differences in table manners, variations of the eyelids?" (Coetzee 51). The Magistrate tries interpreting the relics, the barbarian ways, the empire's ways and after much difficulty still has no luck . When he finally does write his own account, he stares at the plea he has written and he thinks, “It would be disappointing to know that the poplar slips I have spent so much time on contain a message as devious, as equivocal, as reprehensible as this” (Coetzee 154). Through the contemplation of his own words, he realizes that history can not be universal. The Magistrate tries to decipher the relics, while he tries to document his own history. In both instances, he is searching for something universal, something that everyone can understand, yet there is no true history that can satisfy everyone and this is what he discovers in his own words. Coetzee presents this argument at the very begining of the novel by refusing to anchor the story in any particular time period in that way allowing the reader to make their own ideas and interpretations, their own truths of the story, where and when it takes place and of how power plays a role in how history is told regardless of the time period. This ambiguity allows the story to transcend genierations, time and history allowing different interpretations to be made by all individual readers of what in truth this novel represents. In truth this novel simply says that history is ambiguous, and the extent of it's truth lies in the individual, and their own personal interpretations.

Relevant References

This poem by Georgios Tsiledakis represents the way in which "Waiting for the Barbarians" expresses history's ability to transcend the dimension of time by its ablility to be put within any timeframe, past present or future. The poem is titled "Waiting for the Barbarians" but is in a modern context, involving senators and the Senate.

Here is another reference which is about the opera of "Waiting for the Barbarians" by the American classical music composer, Philip Glass.

Picture taken from opera by Philip Glass