Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee

This was originally on my Goodreads account: 2010


This is a writer’s response as part of my MFA.

Response to Waiting for the Barbarians, by J.M. Coetzee
On the heels of Riddley Walker I found some interesting parallels between Hoban’s writing and Coetzee’s writing. Both used the first person to make this more personal, more like someone telling the events directly. The tense is primarily present tense. The worlds, the milieu, are made up—that is they are not present day and not actual events and places—and finally the entire story and the characters are allegories, or metaphors, for the repeated flaws of mankind.
It is the latter which I will explore in Coetzee’s book. Coetzee carefully uses terms that we are familiar with, but at the same time do not add too much specificity to place, or country. It is sufficiently vague, yet leaves us thinking we understand immediately what is going on—through our own filling in of the blanks. This starts immediately, it is after all only 130 pages long. The phrase “emergency powers” on page one evokes every government in the world where the military becomes involved. It is timeless. By page 2 we have “Third Bureau,” “Civil Guard,” and by page three “Excellency” as a manner of address. Coetzee capitalizes these terms, telegraphing the reader their significance as an allegory. For example, “the War College (50).” They are symbolic of all military guards that have special powers, of all special divisions with special powers. Timeless. Any country.
This careful choice of words is impeccable throughout the book. Post reading of the book, I looked at a number of reviews by readers. The number of readers from around the world, who saw this as resembling their own country’s history, was amazing. This use of words that are just on the edge of telling us specifics, without actually doing so includes “frontier,” “capital,” “communal land,” etc.

Coetzee also gives us a slightly different narrator with his use of parenthesis in the first person. He could have used italics for thought, or simply narrative, yet his use of parenthesis is fairly extensive. For instance, “(On the other hand, who am I to assert my distance from him? I drink with him, I eat with him, I show him the sights, I afford him every assistance as his letter of commission requests, and more. The Empire does not require that its servants love each other, merely that they perform their duty.)” (5-6). Note the Empire as another capitalized word that is an allegory for all empires. But, the parenthesis are very interesting. They remove this thought more than an interior dialogue, or italicized thought. They give a distance, as if the narrator came back later to add this, or as if the narrator is saying these pieces of observation are the trusted narrator versus the less reliable in the present actor. Another example of this distance, or more reliable narrator, “(I say this who now keep a barbarian girl for my bed!)” (38). I don’t think I have seen parenthesis used quite like this before.
Every character is an allegory. Colonel Joll, the cook, the prostitute, but especially the young woman who the narrator takes special interest in. Coetzee keeps these characters nameless, even Colonel Joll is somehow still nameless. No first name and hidden behind sunglasses. The ‘barbarian’ girl, or young woman, is an important allegory and ties in with the recurring use of a dream that Coetzee uses. Normally, I dislike the reliance on dreams for metaphors, but as a recurring dream, where some small part changes—as the narrator changes—works. The dream gives us additional insight into what role the barbarian girl plays. “I circle around the child, who continues to pat the snow on the sides of the castle, till I can peer under the hood. The face I see is blank, featureless; it is the face of a n embryo or a tiny whale; it is not a face at all but another part of the human body that bulges under the skin; it is white; it is the snow itself. Between numb fingers I hold out a coin. (37)”
The story is what is under the surface. The barbarian woman will play the crucial role in the narrator’s change. The dream is an allegory of the barbarian woman, while simultaneously being a metaphor for the facelessness of the oppressed, of children, and a metaphor for what is just below the surface of any of us, especially the narrator. Coetzee’s skill is in dropping these allegories and metaphors all the time, yet we are not overwhelmed with them, nor are they tiresome, they still propel the story forward. By page 52-3 the dream girl is taking form, becoming real and it is the narrator who is becoming amorphous, slow, frozen,”I try to smile and touch them as I pass on my way to the girl, but my features are frozen … I raise a hand to tear it off: the hand I find is thickly gloved, the fingers are frozen inside the glove, when I touch the glove to my face I feel nothing.” The dream is shifting its metaphor to the powerlessness of the narrator, the slowness to act, that he is becoming the girl and she is becoming real. “But no, she is herself, herself as I have never seen her, a smiling child, the light sparkling on her teeth and glancing from her jet-black eyes. ‘So this is what it is to see!’ I say to myself. (53)” Recall that the barbarian woman is mostly blind, but some of her sight is returning and she is becoming more real.
I found the use of a woman’s period, which is almost cliché, as bad luck and superstition interesting (69-70). It may not have been intentional, but the narrator’s going through purification ceremonies to appease the others became an interesting metaphor for what the narrator will have to go through the rest of the book. His own purification, punishment, is necessary for him.
The book ends with the dream—despite the narrator claiming that it is “not the scene I dreamed of (156),” affirming its importance as an allegory for the entire story, which is itself an allegory for empires oppression and stupidity. The children are a bit of hope for the future. The snow wipes the slate clean. He realizes he had “lost his way long ago but presses on along a road that may lead nowhere.” The Empire is no longer his road and guide, but life continues.
In summary, I found Hoban’s book hugely interesting and a fascinating study, but Coetzee’s book lent itself to more ideas as to how to add to my repertoire of writing techniques, through the use of allegory and first person that more closely resembles what I would use.

Works Cited

Coetzee, J.M. Waiting for the Barbarians. New York. Penguin Books. 1982. Print.

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