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‘When some men suffer unjustly’, I said to myself, ‘it is the fate of those who witness their suffering to suffer the shame of it’

On the fringes of the Empire lies a frontier town administered by the magistrate, the narrator of the book, who hopes to live out the rest of his days in peace indulging in his hobby of uncovering ancient barbarian relics. The barbarians are the original inhabitants of the land – the natives who have been pushed further up north into arid lands by the Empire. While the magistrate knows they mean no harm, the Empire sends Colonel Joll of the Third Bureau, an intelligence wing of the Empire, to stave off any possible attack by the barbarians by sending a contingent of soldiers beyond the frontier to barbarian lands. The soldiers bring back prisoners and torture them to get information on the plans of the barbarians. Despite the magistrate’s protests, the Third Bureau have free reign to go about with their torture tactics, as described by Colonel Joll to the magistrate:

‘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’

The magistrate tries at first to ignore the torture, but after the Third Bureau leave, he is left to handle the damage, both physical and psychological, to the victims and comes to recognize the brutality and injustice of it. One of them is a barbarian girl who has been partially blinded by the torturers. He takes it on himself to tend to her, setting him on a path of justice rather than blind adherence to the Empire’s unfounded excesses.

Published in 1980, Waiting for the Barbarians seems as relevant today as in any period of recent or distant history replete with empires and the brutal suppression of one group of people, often native, ‘barbarian’, by another – stronger, civilized. The laws that protect the citizens of the empire do not apply to the barbarians, whose only fault is that they are the other – the source of imagined fears, uncivilized, and hardly worthy of being treated as humans. The magistrate stands up agains it, and yet he is not without his follies. His relationship with the barbarian girl who he tries to help is not entirely unselfish. His narrative is largely personal, most of it obsessed with the girl, and her torture is the tipping point that puts him in opposition with the Empire’s Third Bureau.

Some of the best passages in the book are those of the adverse landscape that lies beyond the frontier leading to the barbarians. In the magistrate one finds echoes of characters in Coetzee’s later books – the disgraced aging professor, David Lurie from the book Disgrace, in the attraction that aging men feel to young women and the fall from grace, and Michael K from Life and Times of Michael K in the ability to withstand personal affronts and survive in unforgiving landscapes. Coetzee’s writing style is one of simple elegance, with a restrained voice that conveys a visual imagery of the world that the magistrate and torturers live in without any hint of over-dramatization in its most telling sections.

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