As I was reading the first two sections of J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, I kept noticing how the narrator’s descriptions of the barbarians make it seem as if they are actual animals. When the barbarian prisoners are first brought back to the town to be detained until Colonel Joll returns, the narrator says that he and the men who work for him “stand watching them eat as though they are strange animals” (18). The barbarians are kept in a yard, locked in by a gate, which makes this whole scenario reflect the environment of a zoo where people come to gawk at poor captive animals that have been stripped of their natural habitat. The narrator goes on to observe, “their habits are frank and filthy” (18), and explains how many of the prisoners became ill from the unclean environment, which promoted the kitchen staff “to toss them their food from the doorway as if they were indeed animals” (19). These descriptions further add to the zoo-like environment.
But aside from the narrator’s observations, I couldn’t help but wonder why these people were considered barbarians when the narrator explains, “the people we call barbarians are nomads, they migrate between the lowlands and the uplands every year, that is their way of life” (49). While a nomad might not be the most civilized person, I would not classify him as a barbarian. I also thought that the narrator’s first observations of the barbarians did not seem barbaric at all. He describes how a loaf of bread was offered to the oldest prisoner and that “the old man [accepted] the bread reverentially in both hands, [sniffed] it, [broke] it, and [passed] the lump around” (18). Now, some might consider the man sniffing the bread savage, but what I saw as most important was how he shared the bread with the other prisoners. An animal would have kept the entire loaf of bread for himself, which would have undoubtedly started a fight amongst them all. I thought that their sharing showed a sense of civilization that the narrator and the other men of the empire failed to recognize.
Another example of the barbarians being treated as animals is the way that the narrator adopts the blind barbarian girl who has been left behind. The way that the narrator describes his relationship with the girl reminded me of the relationship a person would have with an adopted pet. He massages the girl as a person would pet an animal and is comforted by here mere presence and warmth beside him. At one point when the narrator buys a fox cub and keeps it in his room, he says to the girl, “People will say I kept two wild animals in my rooms, a fox cub and a girl” (34). The narrator keeping the girl as a pet seems to show the white man’s need to dominate those of a different race or lower class just as a pet owner feels a sense of contentment from being the controller in their helpless animal’s life. The narrator even comes to the conclusion that he has kept the girl because he feels the need to “obliterate” her (46), just as some pet owners mistreat or abuse their pets in order to feel a sense of domination.
In conclusion, it appears to me that the so-called “barbarians” are not so barbaric after all. A label has been assigned to this group of people so that the men of the Empire can assure that they remain dominant. Interestingly, though, the narrator predicts that the barbarians will “outlast” the men of the empire (50).