There isn’t much I can say about Waiting forthe Barbarians—possibly the best novel by South African Nobel Prize winner J. M. Coetzee—that hasn’t already been said in award ceremonies and doctoral dissertations. But I’d like to voice my appreciation for a single aspect of the book.
Waiting for the Barbarians is about an old man, “the magistrate,” who runs a remote outpost of a faraway Empire. After criticizing the Empire’s policy toward the nearby “barbarians,” he rescues a barbarian girl from rape at the hands of the local soldiers. He takes her into his room. He bathes her. He becomes obsessed with her and the crimes that his Empire has committed against her. By the end of the novel he is fighting against the Empire and its barbaric approach to the barbarians, even though it means jeopardizing his career and his life.
So it’s basically a rip-off of a hundred different movies, starting with the continuum of Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves, and Avatar. And a thousand more stories, if we consider all the times a man switches his allegiance and/or lifestyle after falling in love with a woman from the “other” side.
The difference is, the magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians never falls in love. He and the barbarian girl sleep beside each other, and even—awkwardly—have sex. But they never make the mistake of thinking they understand each other. Too different to be truly intimate, they remain stubbornly closed to one another. As two people from radically different cultures would.
In so many of these stories, romantic love is a shortcut to cultural sympathy. We don’t watch Jake Sully struggle for years to learn the values and customs of the Na’vi. Instead we see him fall in love with one of their beautiful blue women. And then—poof! He’s one of them. It’s taken for granted that he’s fighting on the right side now, because he’s fighting for love.
The magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians makes a tougher, more explicitly moral decision: to oppose his own people because they are behaving evilly toward a culture that no one, even the magistrate, fully understands. He can’t run away and join the oppressed people that he’s fighting for. Like the hero of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (Is it a coincidence that all the good examples are books and all the bad examples are movies?) the magistrate stands up to an an Empire even though he has nothing tangible—least of all romantic love—to gain by it.
The relationship between the magistrate and the barbarian girl is just one of the familiar tropes that Waiting for the Barbarians wears for a few dozen pages and then sheds like an old coat. But with this one storyline Coetzee makes a convincing argument that loving a barbarian girl doesn’t solve anything—quite the opposite, in fact. Apparently there is no such thing as Pocahontas.
- Brian Hurley