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Waiting for the Barbarians – The declaration of a rebel

October 13, 2009

The third novel of J M Coetzee, the first one in which we see the classic Coetzee style
…from Africa

Waiting for the Barbarians is one of Coetzee’s early works, bearing the characteristics of his early phases of literary evolution.

The hero is an employee of the Empire, a magistrate running a borderland settlement, fencing it from the natives, the barbarians. In the typical Coetzee style, the Empire symbolizes the colonial government of nineteenth century South Africa. The magistrate’s feelings towards the natives take a dramatic turn when he falls for a native girl orphaned by the Empire. At first, his sympathies for the natives are mild but when he sees an interrogation of the natives by the Empire employees, things start to change. At last he turns against the Empire completely in a quixotic revolt against the racist injustice. He is imprisoned and persecuted by the Empire. The title is an irony over the racist situations. After the revolt of the hero, the Empire and its employees are called the barbarians.

The style of Coetzee improves dramatically in this work. We almost see the grace and ease of ‘Disgrace’. Waiting for the Barbarians is a pleasant though sad read. It flows smoothly. The use of present simple as narration makes it a little dreamlike. Though events and thoughts blend in but the reader can easily differentiate between thoughts and events.

Coetzee is still a fervent socialist and many dialogues in the novel hint at the Cold War situations.

It is a sympathetic narrative which touches one’s heart, but it is clearly the imagination of a late-twentieth century white male with liberal commitments. The setting of the novel in early nineteenth century does not seem natural. While the colonialists were definitely cruel and racist, judging them according to the present standards seems a little harsh. As compared to a full-blooded support of the natives by a white man today, even a slight insubordination to the colonial authorities on the part of a nineteenth century colonialist employee was a far greater act of bravery. Nikita Khrushchev may remain a reviled Commie figure in the West, but if he had not given that famous secret speech of 1956, denouncing Stalin, then the path for many who later brought down the Communist regime would not have cleared. We have to see history in this evolutionary light. Waiting for the Barbarians is essentially a twentieth century novel with all the latest liberal inputs and we witness the grafting of a twentieth century intellect over a nineteenth century landscape.

Coetzee is still to disavow himself from the commitment to the political Left. This he would do in Life and Times of Michael K.

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