Thoughts Upon Revisiting J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians

by Pete Duval

Spalding MFA Faculty, Fiction

In the context of our recent national discourse on torture and police brutality, at the suggestion of my wonderful colleague Elaine Orr, I reread J. M. Coetzee’s 1982 novel Waiting for the Barbarians. Having first encountered it 20 years ago while a student at Boston University, I find it remarkable how relevant the book remains today. The novel is a bit of a wonder, a slim masterwork of enviable craft and abiding wisdom. Particularly remarkable to me is how deeply it depends on the body for its power. So in touch is it with the physical, so visceral its prose, that one feels utterly traumatized after putting it down. As fiction writers we have a lot to learn from Coetzee, but I recommend Waiting for the Barbarians with a caveat: we should remember that it’s a work of genius.

The novel’s protagonist, its nameless narrator, is the “Magistrate” of a frontier settlement, an unambitious servant of an empire he no longer much cares about and, after more than two decades away from its center, hardly remembers; our first impression is: he’s self-satisfied and not very likable, hardly a bad man but not a particularly good one. On the doorstep of old age, he’s a self-involved sensualist, a fritterer content to live out his term as civil servant—and the rest of his life—doing the minimum. Into this bland equilibrium comes Colonel Joll of the empire’s intelligence agency, the “Third Bureau,” sent to the frontier ahead of the empire’s anticipated military campaign against the barbarians, who throughout the novel remain enigmatic and evasive, less a concrete reality than a useful projection of the official fear and hatred. Colonel Joll is also a professional torturer and as such someone completely beyond the Magistrate’s comprehension. He reacts to Joll with equal parts revulsion and genuine curiosity. How could someone care so much about a principle—in this case some duty to the distant abstraction of empire—to commit torture?

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Of particular interest to me, given our historical moment, is the novel’s understanding of the real ends of torture, which might serve us well in our tepid and delimited “debate” of the past month. Torture has never been about “gathering intelligence”—at least not reliable intelligence. (What end is served by 183 water boarding sessions?) It has always been about the projection of state power, from the realms of the public and political into the “frontier” of the intimate. We soon understand Colonel Joll as the Magistrate’s opposite, efficient and all business, a true servant of empire who sees torture as the powerful tool it is, nothing more. He’s a technician, as complacent in the bureaucratic moral insularitythe empire provides as the Magistrate was in the remoteness of his post. One of the master strokes in Waiting for the Barbarians is how the Magistrate’s “flaws”—his tendency to wallow in comfort and in the ebbing pleasures of the body, his immersion in the “minutiae of life”—seem to inoculate him from the moral complacency toward torture he sees all around him. Call it the “banality of goodness.” In solitary confinement, he comes to know what has been to this point a wordless animal hunger (which is, in the end, a thoroughly spiritual hunger): “The craving to touch and be touched by another human body,” he says, “sometimes comes over me with such force that I groan.”

The novel’s turning point—the hinge of the narrative—comes when the Magistrate finds himself obsessed with a barbarian woman who has been tortured by Joll. Seemingly, he’s attracted to her for the same reasons he’s made a habit of visiting his favorite prostitute. Not particularly remarkable. But the attraction turns out to be much more complex. In the Magistrate’s encounter with the woman’s broken body, something comes alive in the him which he hardly understands himself. His evenings with her take on the form of a ritual: he feels compelled to wash her feet, to anoint her scarred body with oils. It would be reductive to label this a moral awakening; it’s more of an encounter with the unpredictable implications of intimacy. And that same part of him that has never really served the empire, which will come to disqualify him for such service, and which has lain buried like the lost city he spends his time excavating out beyond the settlement’s walls, begins to assert itself in a new and irresistible way. In the hands of a lesser writer, the result might have been facile and predictable. But Coetzee is a master. “In my suffering,” says the Magistrate, describing his own torture, “there is nothing ennobling.” No. Because wisdom isn’t about what’s noble, only about what is true. And to empire, truth is a subversive thing. Though he asserts that the torturers “were interested only in demonstrating to me what it meant to live in a body, as a body, a body which can entertain notions of justice only as long as it is whole and well,” the Magistrate already understands this truth—small and capital “t”—of the body. He’s always understood it. In order to silence dissent, torture appeals to the seat of this most profound truth (which is also, understandably, the well source of all great writing). As it turns out, the torturers aren’t really all that interested in the Magistrate’s dealings with the barbarians, the ostensible reason for his interrogation. They mean to demonstrate to the people of the settlement how far the empire is willing to go. No one is safe. And, as passive spectators of torture—in the crowd the narrator sees “not hatred, not bloodlust, but a curiosity so intense that their bodies are drained by it and only their eyes live, organs of a new and ravening appetite”—the citizens are complicit. No one is innocent. The torturers “came to my cell to show me the meaning of humanity,” says the Magistrate, “and in the space of an hour they showed me a great deal.” But by this time in the novel, we read such an assertion as a projection of the Magistrate’s humanity, and a multi-layered irony. Despite his flaws, indeed because of them, the Magistrate has always refused to reduce human beings to things, and, when Joll and the other emissaries of the empire leave the settlement to its fate with the barbarians, this inability becomes the source of a new and deeper authority, one he commands almost completely without ego. He has lost himself and found something else, a result that seems unimaginable at the start of this short novel, but which we understand by its end to have been inevitable.

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