To read Coetzee’s fiction is to undertake a journey, a passage, with the consequent necessity of recuperation when the passage is completed. Waiting for the Barbarians offers a passage to an undesignated time and place, a frontier town, one of many established to secure a heartland from barbarians. The mise-en-scène offers clues to both place and period (lances, fusils, desert and marshland) but these are unimportant. This is a novel that describes a number of binary oppositions, which turn out not to be genuine choices.
Sharing, at the beginning at least, a mood of detachment similar in texture to Kafka’s In The Penal Colony, the central protagonist is unnamed, referred to simply as The Magistrate. Just three of the novel’s many characters are named: the menacing Colonel Joll from the Third Bureau ( I am intrigued that ‘jol’ is South African slang meaning to have fun, to party, which Coetzee was probably aware of in choosing this surname), his vicious sidekick Mandel, and, singly, Mai, a mother that The Magistrate turns to, briefly, for intercourse. By naming just the opposite poles of violence and intimacy Coetzee foregrounds this as a didactic fable with its roots in Kafka.
It is of course essential to read Waiting for the Barbarians as a critique of two distinct forms of colonialism, the benign but amoral form identified with the Magistrate, the last just man, and the unreserved despotism of the Third Bureau and Empire as represented by Joll. Finally, as in Cavafy’s poem, the barbarians never come, thus leaving the reader to ask if they existed, and whether the truly barbaric were within the fortress all along. A Baudrillardian reading through a filter of American barbarism in the Middle East would be rewarding but perhaps for another time.