Waiting for the Barbarians
The Possibility of Decolonization in J. M. Coetzee’s ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’
Decolonization is more difficult than simply removing the physical presence of the colonizer. Colonialism imprints on a multitude of levels on the lives of both the colonizer and colonized; the prospect of undoing years of institutionalized and officiated colonial control is a daunting challenge. J. M. Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians attempts to tackle the issue of decolonization through the mentality of the colonizing central character, the nameless Magistrate, exploring the difficulties that arise when poor leadership, uncertain morals, and ineffectual idealism intermingle within a changing colonial context. Waiting for the Barbarians presents complete decolonization as an impossible ideal due to ineffective leadership, focusing on the role of the Magistrate as a hopeless harbinger for the process whose motives are questionable and who succumbs to the pitfalls of sympathetic liberal thinking.
As the leader of the small border settlement where most of the novel takes place, the Magistrate appears to be, at best, a barely competent leader. At the start of the novel the Magistrate does not seem to be a likely catalyst for decolonization. He seems to have the most rudimentary level of power and, at the novel’s very start, has his little authority overridden by the cruel and torturous Colonel Joll of the Third Bureau. Joll is throughout the novel seen by the Magistrate as symbolizing every cruel and unfair aspect of colonial rule, torture, deceit, and willful blindness being the primary tools Joll uses to further the interests of the Empire. A conversation between Joll and the Magistrate, the two central figures of power within the novel, concerning the process of torture to extract admissions of guilt reveals the absolute power of colonial rule that is epitomized through Joll:
‘“There is a certain tone,” Joll says. “A certain tone enters the voice of a man who is telling the truth. Training and experience teach us to recognize that tone. […] First I get lies, you see – this is what happens – first lies, then pressure, then more lies, then more pressure, then the break, then more pressure, then the truth.”’
For Joll, and colonialism itself, truth is not the intended result of torture, rather justification is. Joll hears what he wants to hear and is unconcerned with objective truths. As the Magistrate notes: ‘Pain is truth; all else is subject to doubt.’ [Coetzee, pp. 5] The Empire does not need the objective truth to proceed with and extend its colonial rule, but rather it needs falsified admissions of guilt where ‘pain is truth’ to provide the image of righteous motives. Colonial rule needs no honestly justified base to exist. Colonialism exists through cruelty as a fallacy of just governance. Suffering is integral to the existence of colonialism, and both Joll and the Magistrate as agents of the Empire acknowledge this and the Magistrate is guiltily aware that, much like Joll, he himself is a symbol for the cruel rule of the Empire. As Jane Poyner notes, the Magistrate ‘realizes that the distance between himself and the vile Joll is […] not so great.’
The Magistrate, though appalled by the barbarity of Joll, is powerless to intervene. Instead he copes with the aftermath of Joll’s torturous exploits, caring for the bodies of the dead and nursing those Joll leaves maimed as best he can. The Magistrate has no authority to stop the atrocities of Joll; his job is not to act as a savior but to ‘collect tithes and taxes, administer the communal lands, see that the garrison is provided for, supervise the junior officers’ and similar administrative positions. [Coetzee, pp. 8] Offended by Joll’s cruelty towards two prisoners the Magistrate confronts Joll, stating the case for their release before noting that ‘I grow conscious that I am pleading for them’ to no avail. [Coetzee, pp. 4] The Magistrate is powerless to change the opinion Joll has towards his two prisoners, his helplessness emphasized by the meekness insinuated by ‘pleading’. As well as being powerless to stop Joll and the atrocities of the Empire at large the Magistrate is often presented as disinterested in doing any more than he is expected to do: ‘I am a country magistrate, a responsible official in the service of the Empire, serving out my days on this lazy frontier, waiting to retire.’ [Coetzee, pp. 8] There is a listlessness in his tone, a vapidity that suggests both a lack of ambition and an apathetic attitude towards his work. Words like ‘responsible’, ‘service’, ‘lazy’, and ‘waiting’ create an image of a character who is without higher goals and uninspiring, or, at the very least, aspiring to little: ‘When I pass away I hope to merit three lines of small print in the Imperial gazette. I have not asked for more than a quiet life in quiet times.’ [Coetzee, pp. 8]
Within the Magistrate lays the opposite of greatness, an un-extraordinary man who wants nothing more than to be forgotten along with his times. He has no intentions to stand up to Joll or the Empire, nor does he formalize any solid convictions about colonial rule. He is both without power or motives to bring about decolonization. At the novel’s start, Coetzee does not wrap the Magistrate in the traditions of heroism; he makes no rousing speeches, he pushes for no great reforms in Imperial rule, nor does he act selflessly on the behalf of those who he governs. Instead, Coetzee presents a colonial everyman, a Kafkaesque bureaucrat caught within the machine of colonial rule, powerless to resist but simultaneously not wishing he could. For decolonization to happen there must be effective leaders willing to bring about change, and the benefits of a dialogue between the colonizer and the colonized are insurmountable. As Nicholas J. White writes, ‘it has been argued that [often the removal of] colonial polities were essentially characterized by ‘collaboration’ with established local elites’ As part of such a polity the Magistrate is, theoretically, an ideal candidate to help bring about a process of decolonization. However, he is, at least from our introduction to him early on in the novel, no such ideal candidate. His lack of power and disinterest in making his life into anything greater than a quiet existence in a provincial town suggest that he accepts colonial rule, and even if he were to verbalize a disapproval or dislike of it, he does not have the conviction or aspiration to act.
Throughout the novel, the Magistrate’s lack of aspiration becomes more and more evident, intermingling with in apathetic view of the world. Whether the Magistrate is even appalled by colonial rule is questionable, the more evident standpoint being that he disagrees with the methods with which the Empire enforces its colonial rule and less that it enforces colonial rule at all. The Magistrate is shown to be capable of compassion, as well as guilt concerning his involvement within the practices of colonial rule; he ensures an orphaned boy taken prisoner is taken care of, and he refers to one of Joll’s early victims as ‘father’, a sign of respect within the provincial region he governs. [Coetzee, pp. 3] Furthermore, his ‘pleading’ to Joll about the fates of two prisoners shows both a level of compassion and guilt.
Perhaps the most important evidence of the Magistrate’s compassion and guilt is his direct, personal, and intimate caring for an abandoned barbarian girl, a victim of Joll’s torture. Left blind and crippled by Joll’s torture, the girl is a moral weight upon the Magistrate, proof to him that ‘The distance between myself and her torturers […] is negligible’, that he is truly part of the colonial ruling class. [Coetzee, pp. 29] Furthermore, she comes to symbolize to him the very worst of colonial rule. As Abdullah F. Al-Badarneh notes in his essay ‘Waiting for the Barbarians: The Magistrate’s Identity in a Colonial Context’: ‘To him […] she is a historical document of the injustice of colonization. Such document has proof in the marks and traces of torture on her body, her eyes, and legs.’ The girl is both evidence that the only separation between the Magistrate and Joll is title and that colonial rule is dependent on the notion that ‘Pain is truth’. Feeling guilty about her treatment under the Colonel, the Magistrate takes it upon himself to try and heal her badly damaged feet: ‘I begin to wash her. She raises her feet for me in turn. I knead and massage the lax toes through the soft milky soap. Soon my eyes close, my head drops. It is a rapture, of a kind.’ [Coetzee, pp. 31] This sense of rapture that the Magistrate succumbs to is the manifestation of being released from a sense of guilt he feels towards how the girl was treated by Joll.
The nature of his relationship with the girl becomes more muddled as it progresses: ‘I have not entered her. From the beginning my desire has not taken on that direction, that directedness.’ [Coetzee, pp. 36] His ‘desire’ for her is not sexual, but rather he desires her as an alleviation of his guilt, a form of catharsis. Her body, and his care for it, becomes a vehicle for forgiveness, for a decolonized ideal: ‘I watch her as she undresses, hoping to capture in her movements a hint of an old free state.’ [Coetzee, pp. 36]] Though the Magistrate’s acts of kindness and compassion, his respect, his ‘pleading’, and his care for the girl can be seen as indicators that he ethically opposes the cruelty of the Empire, it could also be argued that his acts are merely an opposition to torture, or, perhaps on a more personal level, a specific opposition to the methods of the despicable Joll.
The Magistrate’s acceptance of colonialism can be seen in several instances. When the elder of the two prisoners he pleaded on behalf of dies, he attempts to extract the objective truth from the remaining prisoner, promising release from Joll’s torture as reward. Here he notes that ‘It has not escaped me that an interrogator can wear two masks, speak with two voices, one harsh, one seductive.’ [Coetzee, pp. 8] The Magistrate is the ‘seductive’ to Joll’s ‘harsh’, two sides of the same coin. His coercing of the young boy is further evidence, much like the crippled barbarian girl, that he is personally invested within colonialism. This duality he has with Joll comes to symbolize to the Magistrate the cruelty of colonial rule, but also further proves to himself how embroiled within it he is: ‘I was the lie that Empire tells itself when times are easy, he the truth that Empire tells when harsh winds blow. Two sides of Imperial rule, no more, no less.’ [Coetzee, pp. 148] His presence as the sympathizer is as essential to colonial control as Joll’s cruelty is and he finds little to criticize of his duties, showing an acceptance of his administrative position.
Moreover, the Magistrate often enacts the role of colonizer he sees in Joll, as well as the role that is expected from the colonized. His relationship with the young woman, his sense of ‘rapture’ and release, is on one level a caring one, but then there are simultaneously aggressive and fetishizing elements to it. She is subtly hostile towards him, aware of her position as racially inferior to him under the colonial discourse which their relationship exists:
‘But even the motion with which she pulls the smock up over her head and throws it aside is crabbed, defensive, trammeled, as though she were afraid of striking unseen obstacles. Her face has the look of something that knows itself watched.’ [Coetzee, pp. 36]
There is a claustrophobia to her posture, ‘crabbed, defensive, trammeled’, as though she is aware she is his prisoner of sorts, a prisoner both politically and as the manifestation of his guilt. The Magistrate Orientalizes her by making her both the symbol of his colonial guilt and an object of curiosity, referring to her with the pronoun ‘itself’. The Magistrate is also not above succumbing to the demonizing of barbarian prisoners that he detests Joll for: ‘Then, all together, we lose sympathy with them. The filth, the smell, the noise of their quarrelling and coughing become too much.’ [Coetzee, pp. 21] His tone shows a crack in the sympathy he is meant to symbolize, signifying that even within him an element of Joll’s cruelty exists. Constantly dominant within the relationship, the Magistrate comes to epitomize Edward Said’s idea concerning the constant superiority of Oxidant over Orient:
‘Orientalism depends for its strategy on this flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand.’
The Magistrate, up until his incarceration, is constantly relating to the Orient of the barbarian girl and prisoners as their superior, an indisputable cog within the colonial machine.
For decolonization to be a possibility, figures must exist that vehemently oppose colonial rule. The Magistrate, the de facto leader of the small province of the Empire he governs, shows a lack of power, a lack of aspiration towards decolonization, but also shows an acceptance of colonial rule. A colonizer himself, he repeatedly shows himself to be invested within colonial rule. When he shows sympathy or kindness towards the barbarians, it is mostly due to an opposition to Joll’s cruelty, his means and not his motives. Without colonialism the Magistrate would be without social standing, financial support, or clout. His livelihood and his ideal future of a ‘quiet life’ is dependent on the continuation of colonial rule and so his sympathies become mere intellectual indulgences. His sympathy but lack of action is representative of the now often caricatured liberal: intellectually inquisitive but reluctant to act. After his incarceration, however, the Magistrate’s sympathies begin to develop into a moderate opposition to the Empire, largely in part to his submission to torture and humiliation and a deeper understanding of the treatment the colonized suffer under colonial rule. With his altered sentiments towards the Empire, his being stripped of title and power, and the unofficial withdrawal of imperial forces from the border region previously under his governance, the Magistrate of the novel’s conclusion is shown to be more aware of the nuances of colonialism and the difficulty of decolonization.
The Magistrate’s narrative in the final chapter acknowledges the problems that arise when the idealized, and so far only theoretical, decolonization becomes a reality. With the withdrawal of imperial forces the town becomes overrun with fear:
‘Along the north rampart we have propped a row of helmets with spears upright beside them. Every half-hour a child passes along the row moving each helmet slightly. Thus do we hope to deceive the keen eyes of the barbarians.’ [Coetzee, pp. 158-59]
The absurdity of this scene shows how colonial rule provided guaranteed safety and order. The Empire was able to provide actual security, whereas the decolonized town is only able to provide the illusion of safety, and even that is so basic that it is not enough to provide the decolonized citizen the confidence to live properly: ‘The fisherfolk will not venture out before sunrise. Their catch has dropped so low that they barely subsist.’ [Coetzee, pp. 158] The Magistrate is shown to acknowledge one of the main problems of decolonization: self-rule. When a nation is decolonized the colonizers takes with them infrastructure and security, leaving the now independent nation to fend for themselves. The Magistrate divulges that post-decolonization his town has had to resort to desperate measures: ‘The school has been closed and the children are employed in trawling the salty southern finger of the lake for the tiny red crustaceans that abound in the shallows.’ [Coetzee, pp.158] Decolonization has led to not only to the removal of security, but also things previously taken for granted (like education and child labor laws) are unable to exist without the authoritative power colonial rule provided. Decolonization, therefore, needs to be negotiated and walked through by a capable leadership, and the desperate picture of his town that the Magistrate paints in the final chapter shows that he is incapable, unable to accommodate the needs of the people he leads and allow a smooth transition to independence.
Furthermore, as well as being unable to guarantee the smooth transition of his town into an independent future, the Magistrate remains to be both politically and ideologically dependent on the Empire and what it symbolizes. He takes control of the town under the probably false promise that:
‘In the spring [the Empire] will send relief, there is no doubt of that’, showing that he still relies on the influence of the Empire to give himself authority, no matter how much of a hoax that authority is.’ [Coetzee, pp. 158]
His Orientalizing of the barbarians continues despite the abrupt decolonization that the frontier goes through:
‘when the barbarians taste bread, new bread mulberry jam, bread and gooseberry jam, they will be won over to our ways. They will find that they are unable to live without the skills of men who know how to rear the pacific grains, without the arts of women who know how to use the benign fruits.’ [Coetzee, pp. 169]
Despite the cruelty and humiliation he has suffered under the Empire, the Magistrate still believes in the superiority of his ‘civilized’ culture over that of the colonized barbarians. This superiority is so extreme that even the most basic of foods, ‘bread and gooseberry jam’, shows how the barbarian life outside of colonial rule is lacking. There is no ignoring how the Empire provided luxuries on both a basic level of food and infrastructure at large.
To the Magistrate, decolonization is nothing more than the illusion of independence and equality. With security and law removed and the still obvious superiority of the Empire, decolonization brings to light how utterly dependent a colonized nation is on the benefits of colonial rule. However, the failures of decolonization in Waiting for the Barbarians can be attributed to the failures of the Magistrate himself. Only partially won over by his sympathies for the barbarians and won over too late, he is powerless and unwilling to make the process of decolonization a success. Even post-decolonization he is still ideologically aligned with the self-superior Empire, dependent on the idea that safety and survival will be delivered with the return of the imperial forces. He is an ineffectual and uninspired leader for decolonization, thwarting a process that could happen if only led by the right person.
 J. M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, [London: Vintage, 2000], pp. 5
 Jane Pyner, J. M. Coetzee and the Paradox of Postcolonial Authorship, [Oxfordshire: Taylor and Francis, 2009], pp. 55
 Nicholas White, Decolonisation; the British Experience since 1945, [Oxfordshire; Taylor and Francis, 2014], pp. 134
 Abdullah F. Al-Badarneh, ‘Waiting for the Barbarians: The Magistrate’s Identity in a Colonial Context’, International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, Vol.3 No. 10, (2013),
 Edward Said, ‘Orientalism’, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. by Vincent B. Leitch [New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010], pp. 1871
Empire, Definition, and Identity: Concepts in Waiting for the Barbarians and “Stranger in the Village”
History, empire, and the individual are all in a strained relationship. Empire functions by organizing, structuring, categorizing, and separating its peoples into different disciplines of the empire for the purpose of efficiency. This creates problems for the individuals under the Empire, individuals become cogs in a system like this. What effects does an empire have on the individuals that dwell under it? Even after an empire dissolves, what effects are left in the empire’s historical wake? It is empires categorization and defining of people that creates a cruel pathology in the bureaucracy of empire to shun its people. As Coetzee wrote in Waiting for the Barbarians, “The Empire does not require that its servants love each other, merely that they perform their duty” (6). Empire not only affects the individuals that support the Empire but the people Empire forcibly takes for the purpose of Empire, fall into a similar more devastating fate – slaves and their future kin meet this fate in America. Empire categorizes and defines what it takes to easily manage it and create a more efficient system, this allows for people to be defined one way. In war, this occurs. The enemy is defined one way, in Coetzee’s hypothetical world the enemy of the empire is marked as “Barbarian.” This is depicted in Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” as well: the oddity of Baldwin’s existence in a remote Swiss village brings to light the definitions that the ghost of Empire’s past has put on him, he will always be seen as a “neger” (Baldwin 165) by the kids and adults.
The history that an empire leaves behind entails the actions of the individuals that perpetuated empire’s agenda. In the American case, slavery ways meant to provide economic prosperity for a white minority, but at a deadly humanitarian cost. In Coetzee’s hypothetical world, empire’s history is “the jagged time of rise and fall” (Coetzee 133). The history empire creates for itself is self-destructive, at some point, the individuals of empire will be hurt enough by the detached agenda of empire and will begin to fight for themselves. Coetzee tells the story of the Magistrate. In the beginning, the Magistrate is dealt with the coldness of Empire when Colonel Joll is introduced to him. Joll’s dark glasses and uncompassionate talk of torturing the empire’s enemies to extract truth demonstrate the empires cruelty, “Looking at him I wonder how he felt the very first time: did he, invited as an apprentice to twist the pincers or turn the screw or whatever it is they do, shudder even a little to know that at that instant he was trespassing into the forbidden? I find myself wondering too whether he has a private ritual of purification, carried out behind closed doors, to enable him to return and break bread with other men” (Coetzee 12). This is empires problem with its individuals. Empire does not care if it’s people like each other or if the people hate each other based on their race, culture, or anything else. Empire only cares if the job is done to perpetuate empire. This can have disastrous effects on the individuals within an empire. The strain created when individuals hate each other can be war. Baldwin discusses this in “Stranger in the Village” when Baldwin mentions the catalyst behind the Civil War of America. Baldwin says, “the question of his humanity, and his rights therefore as a human being, became a burning one for several generations of Americans” (174); those “Americans” are whites and blacks fighting over the answer together of the black man’s humanity. The lines did blur; white people did fight for the humane solution while others fought for the inhumane. This fighting for an answer tore a nation apart and brought a nation together – for the first time. However, history bites back, the new fabric of American society is still fragile enough to this day to be torn by the same question, “its effects are so frequently disastrous and always so unpredictable, why it refuses until today to be entirely settled” (174). The American heart still murmurs with the hate of the past, occasionally fluttering, threatening a heart attack.
Justice, as described by Coetzee, is only a memory of what once was. Justice is no longer an attainable thing, justice now has become a goal that cannot be met. Empire could be the cause of this, preventing justice to people and impending tragedy. Coetzee says, “We are fallen creatures. All we can do is uphold the laws, all of us, without allowing the memory of justice to fade” (Coetzee 139). How does this affect the individuals of Empire? When the magistrate said that quote he was speaking to a prisoner who was not dealt a fair trial or any sense of justice. The individual under Empire is not dealt a fair hand. Coetzee describes barbarians being arrested and treated unfairly, the empire defines the barbarians as savages that kill and need to be detained so empire can expand. This can be seen in American history as well, black Americans are defined as people that are inferior according to historical dogma. The definitions the American “empire” has put on its people has an effect on the present. Baldwin demonstrates how the history of oppression has coalesced within the current black American, Baldwin says, “History as a tool of influence is intrinsically planted within the person from birth, but how does that history affect them today? Baldwin says, “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them” (167); for the black person, what is the history that is trapped within them? The history is that of Jim crow laws and the stigma the American past has put on the American black person. When empire marks a people as its enemy, the mark last with the stereotypes and prejudices of the empire. The definitions and labels empire puts on its people are long lasting and have devastating effects.
As empire finds enemies, it finds “justifications” in killing its enemies. Empire not always creates an enemy to perpetuate the empire’s agenda, sometimes creating an inferior class of people is enough; this can be seen again in the American scene. The tribesmen of Waiting for the Barbarians are labeled as “barbarians” by the empire, this word itself also carries rumors of violence, hatred, bloodlust, and savagery. Coetzee writes, “All night, it is said, the barbarians prowl about bent on murder and rapine” (122), Coetzee describes the fears that empire has of its enemies, a fear that is created because the empire does not know who the tribesman are and what their motives are because they are so contrary to the motives of an empire. The tribesmen have no want or need to grow and perpetuate itself over other peoples. The tribesmen are nomads with no set place, unlike empire which creates permanent structures.
The moment empire finds the discriminations between it and other is when the long-lasting stereotypes of the others are created. Stereotypes that can range from “these people are lazy and unmotivated” to “these people are savages that ruthlessly kill.” The tribesmen are imprisoned by the empire’s army and are beaten; as Coetzee writes, “Stooping over each prisoner in turn and rubs a handful of dust into his naked back and writes a word with a stick of charcoal. I read the words upside down: ENEMY…ENEMY…ENEMY…ENEMY” (105), if empire not only has to label the unknown with rumors and stereotypes of being an enemy, but empire also has to physically label its enemy. This is the history of empire, not wanting to fall, but always wanting to rise. Doing what it has to, so it can rise and survive. Baldwin describes this factor of being a stranger to a group of people and having the group assume you’re an enemy who is ready to do harm. Baldwin describes his experiences being a black man in an all-white Swiss village, “other children, having been taught that the devil is a black man, scream in genuine anguish as I approach… other women look down or look away or rather contemptuously smirk” (Baldwin 171). There is even a violence or potential for malevolent acts to be done out of this fear of not knowing a person’s humanity, Baldwin describes it as “paranoiac malevolence” (172). Baldwin brings to reality the issue of Coetzee’s empire stereotyping and dehumanizing a people – its effect being a hatred so deep it becomes evil and violent.
When the agenda of an inhumane empire become the agenda of all people under the empire, then injustice is the only product that can come from it. History is harmless, it is the acts of the past which live on today that is dangerous to a society. In Waiting for the Barbarians the history which lived on was empire’s need to destroy and conquer which perpetuated more hatred and war; in Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” it was the history of being a stain on the American white conscious which lives on, creating more hatred and violence towards the black man. It is the ability of an empire or nation to label and categorize people that create these issues in the first place. How far can a label go? Can it become the person it was put on? Or is the label only strong enough to change the imaginations that people have on others? However, that in itself is enough to kill. Wars with other peoples have been perpetuated over the labels that people have, civil strife within an empire also began out of the labels each side has for the other. It is empire’s doomed history to forever be stuck in a cycle of rising and falling; destroy and conquer; kill or be killed, and it is man’s doomed history to play a part in one or the other.
Baldwin, James, and Edward P. Jones. Notes of a native son. Beacon Press, 2012.
Coetzee, J. M. Waiting for the barbarians. Penguin Books, 2010.