Waiting for the Barbarians

Cape of Storms, Chaka, and Waiting on the Barbarians: the Importance of Historical Fiction

April 13, 2021 by Essay Writer

Historical novels provide entertainment for a larger audience but still account some accurate historical context making them an excellent source for academic study. While there is sometime blatant disregard for factual history, much of the early history of South Africa is very limited. Because of this, novels that coincide with historical figures and events will often create their own flair to further the plot and add more detail. Aside from coinciding with history, these fictitious novels spark a new found enthusiasm for history that is much more digestible than a 150-page research paper. While embellished for entertainment, driving the plot, and lack of context, there is still an abundance of historical accuracy that lets us recount a much different time. Historical fiction allows us to be connected to the past through human emotion and story, cultivating a new understanding of a very different time, place, culture, and society. As a whole, the art of story telling is at the very least a connection that all humans have in one way or another since our very existence. While we don’t read Cape of Storms literally, through the satirical recount of new people in their land, we see the importance of tradition and a way of life T`kama, a Khoikhoi chief, experiences. The account of the bloodthirsty leader, Chaka, portrays the life of the Zulu leader and his struggle for a never ending power quest giving us insight to the destruction and terror he brought. Waiting for the Barbarians, gives us more of an account of the time of colonialism rather than an actual instance in history. Through each historical novel, we obtain a glimpse into the past and the emotion from it creates a relatable entertaining historical account that helps readers of all levels obtain a new historical perspective.

Cape of Storms, by Andre Brink, depicts the impossible love story of a European woman left behind and a Khoikhoi chief named T’Kama. The drastic difference of cultures, language, and overall understandings lead to a painfully satirical adventure of the two attempting to cultivate love. T’Kama seems infatuated with the woman, Khoi, and is beyond sexually driven. But the painful irony of the situation is that he is enormous, making it impossible to partake in coitus with his wife, much to his frustration. While clearly this part of the story is greatly embellished it plays on stereotypes as well as creates a metaphor for being. T’Kama underwent a magical downsizing to a clay prosthetic member in order to please his wife after the traumatic event of having his “bird” consumed by a crocodile; “in front of my eyes I saw the river turn to red. I heard the crocodile thrashing in the water with its tail. At that stage I felt no pain. But I did not need pain to tell me what I knew: my bird had been snapped right off.” I believe this is a subtle hint at the Khoikhoi people loosing who they are in order to interact with the Europeans to come. Meaning that the male genitalia is very much an identity of T’Kama and of all men but on a broader term this instance expands on the idea of giving something that held honor and a profuse source of pride and altering it for the white people rendering it less special. T’Kama goes on to say, surely no man can survive a catastrophe like that: I had lost the greater part of my body.” While this holds no historical accuracy, the funny idea behind it actually holds some merit as a metaphor that deepens the readers understanding and foreshadowing of what is to come for the Khoikhoi people.

In a more spelled out case is Chaka, of the Zulu people. The violent uptake of a never ending power hunt known as the Mfecane occurred in the early 1800s. While the brutality and violence that ensued is very much accurate the becoming of Chaka is a bit less magical. In Chaka, Chaka obtains this thirst for power and dominance through magic and witchcraft from Isanusi. While Mofolo doesn’t claim to be accurate in representing Chaka’s life he does present an accurate representation of all his heinous doings, “its not our purpose to recount all the affairs of his life… only one part that suits our present purpose.” Mofolo also alludes accurately to the vast number of warriors Chaka has at his disposal, “the number of his warriors was equal to the stars in the sky” which corresponds to the forty thousand or so men he could produce which lead to the vast displacement of people fleeing into the interior to escape his brutal hand.

Waiting for the Barbarians depicts a nameless empire in a nameless territory colonizing the area and settling lands held by native peoples. The cruelty in the rendition of the time is not lost under Coronel Joll and his cruel torture of the barbarians. The unnamed magistrate has his own feelings towards the barbarians, a girl in particular; questioning why he is so sexually attracted to. This account greatly follows that of the colonization of the interior and the superiority of the white men over the so-called barbarians. However, the magistrate’s views shift, “I wish that these barbarians would rise up and teach us a lesson, so that we would learn to respect them. We think of the country here as ours, part of our Empire—our outpost, our settlement, our market centre. But these people, these barbarians don’t think of it like that at all. We have been here more than a hundred years, we have reclaimed land from the desert and built irrigation works and planted fields and built solid homes and put a wall around our town, but they still think of us as visitors, transients” He seems to have a deeper understanding of the forced intrusion on the interior stating that, “They want an end to the spread of settlements across their land. They want their land back, finally. They want to be free to move about with their flocks from pasture to pasture as they used to.”

The compilation of the novels, Cape of Storms, Chaka, and Waiting for the Barbarians, all add to the experience of leaning about the cruel and forced colonization of South Africa. The overall development from the first colonization of the Cape by the Dutch under Jan Van Riebeeck in 1652 which was limited and intentionally non-confrontational. To the development and expansion of the “trekboers” into the interior which was made more feasible due to the decline of the Khoikhoi. Then the arrival of the British in 1795 which eventually leads to major military intervention against the Xhosa, and the ultimate start of the division of society. Once the stratification of society was in further effect we see the rising need for slaves and thus again a push into the interior to find them. Which brings us to the Mfecane and the brutality that followed under Chaka. Through the timeline roughly outlined the novels add to the greater picture that history paints us. While not necessarily historically accurate, the demonstration of a fictional real life example adds to the overall understanding making them a very useful supplemental tool for academic study.

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Latent Context in Waiting for the Barbarians

April 13, 2021 by Essay Writer

The lingering notion of expectancy, craving for self-atonement, ever-present exoticism and a foggy, yet limpid discord of alien libido baffled with covet for power: a dark yet elucidating sphere that depicts the ideology concealed in the novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, written by J.M. Coetzee. Wait, ‘the rust of soul’ as penned by Carlos Ruiz Zafón and its transition with otherness, barbarism, depicts the realm that engulfs the fundamental intuition of characters entangled in the text. The author demonstrates a domain that illustrates itself through the prospect of an individual, magistrate, unsure of his reasonings and the developing dynamic of the world around him, probing for answers in the otherness residing within him and his interaction with the alien subjects. This essay clarifies latent context and meditates around the indifference in the judgment of the characters, an insight to uncertain tides of events: provoking self-assessment within the characters, and the ambiguity in content because of symbolism that masks Coetzee’s perspective.

This essay’s foundation is laid upon the pivotal sentiment of otherness in the novel that centralizes itself against the shifting speculations of the subjects. The male-dominated society, insecure and hesitant, yet full of greed for power over all. Although magistrate’s eyes formulate a world with an incentive for peace, rational thinking and buried sympathy: his quest for understanding the unknown (unexpected) drives him towards an everlasting crusade to grasp his own orientation. The writer Erik Pevernagie caught his understanding of otherness as ‘looking for the unexpected, we are only looking for the unexpected in ourselves…’. The novel initiates with the Magistrate, scrutinizing through the aged ruins of a civilization that appears foreign, yet very intimate. Years of endeavors and doubted ambitions prompt questions within him that address his own individuality that writer composes as “lacking civilized vices with which to fill my leisure, I pamper my melancholy and try to find in the vacuousness of the desert a special historical poignancy. Vain, idle, misguided!” (Coetzee 16). These conclusions spark an ideology that is indeed so suffused with the sense of fleeting and the fragmentary, that a number of profound consequences follow. This hidden revelation erupts a notion of humanitarian view towards the ones who weren’t even close to ladder of power that he was on top of. What follows is a mirage where the magistrate is reluctant to abandon his influence but is continuously captivated by the sinking feeling of self-guilt and incompetence. The arrival of unknown girl who holds minute to no apparent perspective is a lantern that enlightens the mysterious mind set of the magistrate. Her arrival in the city and into the magistrate’s life arcs the lives of the narrator and most citizens of the town, having little to no effect on Empire’s conduct towards the Barbarians.

An aura of restlessness surrounds the magistrate, satisfied at moments yet muddled into a void unaware about the motivation behind his actions. The mighty wall eclipsing him from differentiating between the good and the bad, binding him to his responsibilities, an obstacle that he overcomes after every conversation, slumber and inspection of the barbarian women revealing the reality of his existence; differentiating the oppressor from the oppressed. He states these experiences as “It is I who am seducing myself, out of vanity, into these meanings and correspondences… I search for secrets and answers, no matter how bizarre…” (Coetzee 61). Magistrates first contact with the barbarians ignites a spark for uncalled affection towards the creatures. Although he is not responsible for their happiness still, he gets immersed into a pit of self-guilt, stimulated by his inaction against the persecutors. He narrates these experiences as “how contingent my unease is, how dependent on a baby that wails beneath my window one day and does not wail the next, that brings the worst shame to me” (Coetzee 54). Coetzee uses such scenarios to clarify that passivity during injustice breeds more oppression. Paulo Freire depicts the same idea by stating “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral” (The Politics of Education, 122). Such wavering mentality arises a certain degree of bipolarity in the magistrate. His resolve to help others relies on the helping the abused while maximizing his personal satisfaction. These contradicting psychologies explain the second part of my essay: indifference in the judgement of characters.

Throughout the novel the magistrate is occupied in conflicted thoughts about his feelings towards the unknown: barbarians in general and the maltreated barbarian girl. The oblivion within his mind draws him towards the lady or the unknown, having no justification for his peculiar actions, and at the same time a sub-conscious repulsion towards the alien entities drags him deeper into a constant state of unrest. This altering dynamic is elaborated by Coetzee at multiple locations through sentences such as “space is space, life is life, everywhere the same.” (Coetzee 43) and “…leaving them buried there forever and forever, to come back to the walled town full of new intentions…” (Coetzee 63). Although self-contradicting, magistrates’ views were cloaked in order to give contravening mentalities contrasting views and understand the complexity behind trivial matters that raise questions within the current era. Rituals of washing and healing of the collapsed body of the barbarian women along with frequent visits to the young lady (girl at the inn) magnify the sexual impact that prevailing circumstances and old age had on the magistrate. Such situations are elaborated in the novel as “who picks her up off the streets and installs her in his apartment so…, may seem nothing but evidences of impotence, indecisiveness, alienation from his own desires.” (Coetzee 76,77). In later chapters of the novel a very unique personality of the magistrate emerges as he stands up for the barbarians enduring pain and humiliation, but a lingering thought of saving his own individuality surrounds him as he states, “I cannot save the prisoners, therefore let me save myself” (Coetzee 140). This trade of compassion with the selfish psyche brings out the reluctance hidden within every consciousness. Khalil Gibran writes this of as “Desire is half of life; indifference is half of death.” (Sand and Foam). Magistrate sees his dreams as a portal through which he explores his true desires, and loss of this fantasy leaves him devastated and in disregard. He mentions “These dreamless spells are like death to me, or enchantment, black, outside time.” (Coetzee 43). Magistrates deteriorating condition and his thirst for mental solitude drives him to harsh journeys and persecutions. Going sideways with mentality the third portion of my essay- ambiguous symbolism-that takes roots through description of bizarre weather circumstances, solitude, masked actions and unclear mentality explains symbolism that is not clear yet brings out the true essence of the novel.

The terrifying journey feeding on the travelers basically quenches the thirst for justice that magistrate pursues. The storm depicts the true face of nature that is immersed into the conscience of the other. The terrified men hiding from the storm, neglecting their own origin, hiding behind the cloak of modernization: playing God, implementing their desires upon those that do not follow the same ideology or appear too complex to their confined thinking. The magistrate describes her actions as “The girl stands with her arms stretched like wings over the necks of two horses. She seems to be talking to them; though their eyeballs glare, they are still.” (Coetzee 66). A remote sense of exploration surrounds the magistrate during the, observing the girl (who he no longer addresses as women) and her interaction with the environment depicting a sense of exoticism with the magistrate. His rituals of massaging the women’s body transitions with that of an artist exploring flaws within the broken sculpture, analyzing a way to fix the crippled body, a incident that he could have prevented are evolutionary milestones that lead him deeper into his mind’s orientation, giving him an insight to his exploration of the unknown, the nameless, uncharted, intriguing his desires yet pushing him into never ending gloom as he states ” that it is the marks on her which drew me to her but which, to my disappointment, I find, do not go deep enough? Too much or too little: is it she I want or the traces of a history her body bears?” (Coetzee 88). The magistrate’s imprisonment represents the cost and consequences of seeking out the peace- mind and body-and the small moment of utter calmness that resides within the body once someone struggles for those believes. Although it is fulfilling but disperses as quickly. This drive for our desires marks the irony behind pursuing peace and the inner conflict that resolves at last but gives rise to a never-ending puzzle of seeking quiet.

The novel concludes with a figurative question mark, proposing a dilemma within ourselves about how our mentalities have two entities within ourselves, one strives to explore the other, and the contrary is full of despair and fear for the unknown. He raises and issue that has concerned very nation before us and will concern every civilization after us. The complexity of the topic was simplified yet intrigued using ironic statements, imagery and injustice. The novel’s central idea targets the humanity between us, eradicating the bonds of race and creed, and highlights the trivial matter of peace and unity. The Novel highlights how a society dominated by the powerful may abandon the humanity and objectify others for their uniqueness. The Novel also projects the idea of abandoning the self-absorbed ideologies and going above and beyond for others because it lets us explore the true nature of our existence. To sum things up Waiting for the Barbarians concludes the idea that there is no true justification for committing or bearing violence for it leads towards doom and makes us abandon our humanity

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The Possibility of Decolonization in J. M. Coetzee’s ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’

June 21, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.”’[1]

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.’[2]

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’[3] 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.’[4] 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.’[5]

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.


[1] J. M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, [London: Vintage, 2000], pp. 5

[2] Jane Pyner, J. M. Coetzee and the Paradox of Postcolonial Authorship, [Oxfordshire: Taylor and Francis, 2009], pp. 55

[3] Nicholas White, Decolonisation; the British Experience since 1945, [Oxfordshire; Taylor and Francis, 2014], pp. 134

[4] 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), , [Accessed 1/11/16], pp. 125

[5] Edward Said, ‘Orientalism’, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. by Vincent B. Leitch [New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010], pp. 1871

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Empire, Definition, and Identity: Concepts in Waiting for the Barbarians and “Stranger in the Village”

January 24, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

Works Cited:

Baldwin, James, and Edward P. Jones. Notes of a native son. Beacon Press, 2012.

Coetzee, J. M. Waiting for the barbarians. Penguin Books, 2010.

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