Prisoner of Conscience


Waiting for the Barbarians, by J.M. Coetzee, New York: Penguin, 1982, 156 pp., $3.95.

"Once in every generation, without fail, there is an episode of hysteria about the barbarians," speaks the aging magistrate who narrates J.M. Coetzee's novel, Waiting for the Barbarians. The magistrate presides over a prospering trading settlement at the edge of the thousand-mile-long frontier of "The Empire," a civilization rooted in 19th-century technology—muskets, carriages, and stone ovens. The peace of the settlement is broken when Colonel Joll of the Civil Guard arrives from the capital with news of barbarian uprisings—raids on pack trains, stolen sheep. To the magistrate, this is old news. "Of this unrest I myself saw nothing," he says. "Show me a barbarian army and I will believe."

The search for the enemy commences. Colonel Joll satisfies the Empire's demand for a body count by rounding up harmless fishing people and torturing confessions out of them. Of his techniques of interrogation, Joll tells the magistrate, "A certain tone enters the voice of a man who is telling the truth." The magistrate's rage builds slowly—he is, after all, only an elderly civil servant with no greater professional ambition than to collect a short acknowledgment in the imperial gazette when he retires.

Colonel Joll casts the net farther, captures a pack of the nomads called barbarians, and tows them into the settlement with thin steel wires threaded through their hands and cheeks, to deposit them into the growing inventory of misery. The Empire's hostilities close the frontier, commerce ceases, and the outpost begins its decline as two communities of parasites—prisoners and Civil Guard—attach themselves to the settlement.

Coetzee's novel scales the range of the novelist's art as his Kafkaesque everyman begins to challenge the authority of the state. Against an imagined backdrop of culture and environment which Coetzee skillfully creates with subtle literary gesture, one man's defense of the rule of law and decency is sketched. The magistrate extends his compassion first to a barbarian girl whose eyes have been singed and feet crushed in interrogation by Joll, and then to barbarian prisoners who are pulverized in public beatings. His compassion marks him as a traitor, and the terror of the Civil Guard is brought down on him.

The wealth-producing land outside the settlement is razed to deny the phantom barbarians sanctuary. Detachments of the Civil Guard mount new forays into the frontier and vanish. The people of the outpost grow venal, the troops larcenous; and as the village exhausts its civility, it begins to feed on itself. Colonel Joll's search for the enemy concludes with a surprise. The wait for the barbarians is over. They are to be found everywhere.

Coetzee's short tale, set in its mythic netherworld, has allegorical strains too numerous to tabulate. Religious notions about penance and purification are intertwined with a historian's sense of the fragility of civilization. But Waiting for the Barbarians is primarily the story of the noble magistrate, who says of himself, "Let it at the very least be said that in this farthest outpost of the Empire of light there existed one man who in his heart was not a barbarian."

Jack Shafer is managing editor of Inquiry.