‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ is a novella that I have returned to time and time again over the last year. Captivatingly beautiful, like all of Coetzee’s prose, it’s no surprise that this story remained with me. The quality of the prose within these pages is so beautiful and dense that I will definitely be returning to reread sections.
The story centres around our protagonist, the Magistrate, who struggles with his own desires and morality throughout the course of his life. The story has a sense of universality: a story about oppression and the struggles of man. Eventually I pitied the protagonist on his journey to fulfil, what he believes is, his mission. The Magistrate’s journey is thought provoking and reaches the very core of consciousness, as we muse over the character’s choices and their consequences.
Deeply intimate, Coetzee beautifully depicts the relationship at the centre of this story; a relationship between the powerful and powerless. Coetzee’s description of these intimate exchanges is uncomfortable, almost poetic yet very real. As a reader, we are withheld from the thoughts of the woman – placing us in the shoes of the Magistrate. Us and him are distanced from her wants, desires and thoughts. In essence, the story of the girl is bitterly tragic and she is a victim beyond rescue:
‘I gave the girl my protection, offering in my equivocal way to be her father. But I came too late, after she had ceased to believe in fathers. I wanted to do what was right.’ (p.81)
This story is worth your time if you want to be moved, provoked and unsettled by a story. It will certainly remain with me long after I’ve put it down, when I eventually do.
(Coetzee, J.M. ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, Penguin Books, 1980).