Dan Sandman

17: Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee

In Books, Fiction on 22/04/2016 at 12:00 pm

Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. CoetzeeThis book is an allegory or narrative with a hidden meaning. Overtly, it is about a rebellious magistrate who fights against a fictional state system simply called Empire (yes, like in Star Wars). Less obviously, it is a story about the colonization of Southern Africa. The message is that colonialism is the military enforcement of Western values upon colonized peoples. It is the arrogant assumption that one can invade a foreign land in the name of civilization. The misguided belief that less technologically advanced peoples are savage barbarians to be feared and tortured.

The narrative is set in a flawed military bureaucracy. As narrator, the magistrate contrasts the hypocrisy of the regime with the written culture and archaeological history of the so-called barbarians. He also develops a quasi-sexual relationship with a girl who has been tortured by the sadistic villain Colonel Joll. Overall, there is a pervading sense that Empire is a force of evil in the world (yes, like in Star Wars). Allegorically, this is an attempt to address the problems still present within postcolonial Southern Africa.

My main criticism is that such stories offer no solutions to these problems. We might agree that the magistrate is right to rebel against Empire. Our thoughts might be with the downtrodden victims of government-sanctioned cruelty and injustice. But at at no point are we given hope that good can and will defeat evil.

Yes, unlike in Star Wars.


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