Waiting for the Barbarians, pages 56-107
In class last Wednesday, Professor Gruner proposed the following question: “Are the barbarians in this story treated like animals because they act like animals, or do they act like animals because they are treated that way?” It is impossible to read this story without contemplating the treatment of the barbarians and the reasons behind that treatment. Is it possible that the barbarians really are lesser forms of life? Is that the reason for their mistreatment? Up until the events that occur between pages one hundred and one hundred and seven, that position is somewhat defendable. By taking the Magistrate, however, and subjecting him to the treatment of the barbarians, Coetzee seems to be eluding to the idea that the reason behind the abuse is somewhat more abstract.
The Magistrate begins the story on good terms with Colonel Joll. Although the narrator clearly fears Joll, the Colonel regards him as more of an ignorant child than an equal. As the Magistrate begins to identify more and more with the barbarians, his relationship with Colonel Joll and his men worsens. He is eventually imprisoned, and the degredation of their relationship reaches its climax on the events on page 105. The horrors that are visited upon the barbarians by Colonel Joll and his men are unspeakable, so much so that they cause the Magistrate to, for the first time in the text, speak out openly against the oppressors. By publicly condemning the action of the Colonel and his forces, the Magistrate declares himself their enemy. He is savagely and publicly beaten to a pulp.
One of the most significant elements of this interaction is the swift delegation of his status as an ally to a barbarian. After one simple act of defiance, Colonel Joll is able to ignore the entirety of their history together and have him beaten mercilessly. Although the Magistrate is clearly not an animal, and his aggressor knows him well enough to understand that fact, he is treated like one.
The Magistrate is not abused because he is a “savage,” he is beaten because he attempted to stand up to those in power. Colonel Joll and his men were not welcome to the idea of being questioned. By accusing him of wrongdoing, the Magistrate was challenging his position of superiority. It was for that reason that he was beaten and hauled away.
The parallel between the abuse of the Magistrate and the Barbarians cannot be ignored. Coetzee seems to be suggesting that the abuse of the Barbarians is simply an exercise in superiority. By including an incident in which the abuse that was visited solely upon the Barbarians was extended to a sympathizer, Coetzee is suggesting that propensity for abuse has less to do with the barbarians themselves than it does with the insecurities of those who hold the power in this text. The abuse that pervades this text is nothing more than attempt to quell a deep-seated fear of inferiority.