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Waiting For The Barbarians
(J.M. Coetzee)

Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee is considered to be an allegory of the
oppressor and the oppressed. The narrator, a magistrate in
one of the tiny frontier settlements in South Africa, finds
the affairs of the Empire smooth till the arrival of the
interrogating officer, Colonel Joll of The Third Bureau
from the capital. His mission is to interrogate and
suppress a rumoured rising of the barbarians against the
The narrator is sympathetic towards the natives who receded deep into the desert and the mountains
when the settlers entered the town. He does not give much
importance to the frequent rumours about a barbarian
uprising against the Empire. But colonel Joll took pride in
the superiority of the Empire and used the rules of the
government to torture the natives. He derived pleasure in
the sufferings of other people.
An old man and a small boy whose arm is seriously injured become the victims
of Colonel Joll on their way to meet the doctor. Joll, in
the name of interrogation tortures the old man to death. He
leaves the body of the dead man inside the cell at night to
frighten the boy. Unable to bear the torture, he tells Joll
the next day that he knows about the plot of the barbarians
and promises to take them to the place where the conspiring
nomad horsemen reside.
The next day Joll and his men go out for hunting the barbarians and return with a
group of fishermen with nets who try to hide when they see
men on horseback. Though irritated at the action of Joll,
the narrator has to obey his orders to keep them in custody
until further orders.
Joll goes into the desert with his men. The narrator knows the landscape and that it
would be difficult for Joll to succeed in his mission and
return to the frontier. In the meantime, the narrator
develops a sort of kinship with a barbarian girl who takes
to begging in the town, after being left out by her tribe
on their return to the desert. He makes her as his servant
and also his companion at night. Later, taking pity on the
girl, he takes her back to her tribe when real trouble
The servants of the Empire consider the
narrator to be a barbarian himself because of his sympathy
towards the barbarian girl. A new officer named Mandel
comes to the town and takes charge of his office. The
narrator is arrested and tortured before being left free
for want of reasonable charges. The narrator takes to
begging and singing to keep his living.
The settlers tremble at the news of the barbarian uprising makes and
leave the town for the capital where they have the security
of the civil guard. Mandel is killed when he tries to leave
the place with his family. The narrator gets his old home
Colonel Joll returns disappointed from the desert. He is not able to find the barbarians. Most of his
men are not able to find their way out while Joll and few
men in his company are lucky enough to escape from the
desert. He returns to the capital in utter disappointment.
The narrator continues to live in the town with the few men
of his community with the hope that peace would be restored
between the settlers and the natives soon.
The novel treats all the paradoxes of life like love and lust, hope
and disappointment, hatred and sympathy etc. The conflict
between the loyalty of the narrator towards the empire and
his sympathy towards the natives is clearly expressed in
the novel.

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