‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ was first written by J.M. Coetzee in 1980, but it is only in recent years that I have started to read Coetzee. Most of Coetzee’s books that I have read so far are searingly honest explorations of self-identity, but this earlier book is quite different. Often described as an ‘allegory’, it has the universality of fantasy, being about nowhere and everywhere. It is set in an isolated town on the frontier of a nameless empire, and narrated by the town’s magistrate, an ageing paternalistic intellectual whose loyalty and moral ‘decency’ is tested by the arrival of ruthless inquisitors from the capital. These utilitarian militarists have a mission to destroy a ‘barbarian uprising’ which, to the extent that it ever exists, is apparently created by their over-confident fear and wilful ignorance.
Like torturers the world over, these people create the very conspiracies they discover. Like many a well-organised civilisation, they are bogged down, harried, and defeated by native peoples able to melt in and out of the wildlands, their highly-trained legions useless against an enemy that has barely confirmed its existence, let alone met their enemies in battle. At the end of the book, the imperial troops have left, and the magistrate, finally restored to the position he lost due to opposing the hopeless war, is left again waiting for the barbarians. It only seems to be he that has the insight to recognise that they will never come, these barbarians – except to the extent that they are already here.
I don’t think this book is an allegory, because it is not a cloaked account of the Apartheid regime in South Africa or any other specific government. Rather it is a fable that applies to all governments, and more basically, to all egos. By trying to exterminate the Shadow, we strengthen it, both within and beyond ourselves. We all have our frontier towns, and our deserts filled with hidden barbarians. Coetzee’s genius here is not just to recognise and depict this psychological situation, but to avoid setting up an idealised hero in opposition to it. Our nameless magistrate is decent rather than heroic, flawed by dithering and sexual weaknesses, and having no defence against torture beyond his recognition of its self-defeating nature. He is not able to prevent the idiotic excesses of the imperial ego, because he is part of that same empire himself and never denies his role in it. However, like realistic heroes in actual experience, he has insights that place him in some ways outside the crowd, that leave him with little choice but to try to oppose it as best he can.
Though it is already thirty years old, this book has a universal quality that will make it still relevant for millenia. It also has a profound moral quality that, like George Eliot’s, emerges gently from the limitations of the characters that exemplify it. In many ways it is a profound meditation on doubt and confidence, on the metaphysical dogmas of the imperium and the dilemmas of the insightful individual able to stand back from the group.