Archive for September, 2009

Waiting for the Barbarians response on hope

September 11, 2009

Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee is an intriguing postcolonial novel.  It portrays an unnamed Empire which hopes to defeat the Barbarians.  The leaders of the Empire are cruel and unjust in their punishments on the “Barbarians.”  They use methods of torture and leave many people permanently deformed without much reason as to why they are punishing these people.  The leaders of the Empire are heartless and use their evil tactics to scare the civilians into believing that the Barbarians are actually a threat.  Among all of the death and inhumanity there is a shred of hope for the Magistrate, who goes from being an oppressor to standing up against injustice.

The Magistrate’s character is seemingly neutral toward the situation at the beginning of the novel.  He goes along with his duties in the military with the belief that somebody will do his job regardless if he does it or not.  At the end of the novel he rethinks the accounts of his position as magistrate and says,

“I toyed more than once with the idea of resigning my post, retiring from public life, buying a small market garden.  But then, I thought, someone else will be appointed to bear the shame of office, and nothing will have changed.  So I continued in my duties until one day events overtook me” (Coetzee 136).

The events that he speaks of overtaking him progress slowly throughout the novel.  A very small part of him begins to become less neutral and more sympathetic toward the tortured Barbarians when he meets the blind girl with the injured legs, although he does not become a changed man immediately.  He helps the girl by giving her a place in his bed and helps her healing process but he is unaffected by her and shows her no real affection.

Hope for the magistrate can be seen after he risks his life and the life of other men by taking a long journey through the cold desert just to bring the girl back to her people.  After he is accused of being a traitor he is locked up and his position of magistrate is taken from him.  It is during this time in his cell that he turns against the military.  Colonel Joll returns to the settlement with twelve Barbarian prisoners and makes a public show of prosecution.  The magistrate cannot stand to see these people be prosecuted with his new change of heart.  The magistrate steps in. “I am in the arena holding my hands to still the crowd: No! No! No!…You are depraving these people!” (Coetzee 104).  Even though he does not call for justice, it is a big step for him to speak up against the Colonel.  He himself is beaten after making a scene.

As the novel nears the end, there are many more situations where the Magistrate voices his stance against the military.  He questions Mandel saying, “How do you find it possible to eat afterwards, after you have been… working with people?” (Coetzee 123).  He also tries to stop the men from destroying innocent people’s homes.  Every time that he voices his opinion he is beaten.  He has lost all of his power but he is now a more moralized man.  There is hope for him and for the future because of the changes that he undergoes. He learns a very valuable lesson, “I have a lesson for him [Colonel Joll] that I have long meditated.  I mouth the words and watch him read them on my lips: ‘The crime that is latent in us we must inflict on ourselves… not on others” (Coetzee 143).  He is no longer an unjust man.  He has taken a stance against something he believes in and no has more purpose in his life.

Coetzee, J.M. Waiting for the Barbarians. London: Penguin Books, 1999.