Quicklet on JM Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians

by Sarah Lilton

What's in the book?

Quicklets: Your reading sidekick!

    • About the Book
    • Sidebar: A very brief introduction to colonization and Apartheid
    • Introducing the Author
    • Overall Summary
    • Chapter-by-Chapter Summary and Commentary
    • List of Characters
    • Key terms and definitions
    • Major themes and symbols
    • Top 10 interesting facts about the novel
    • Sources
    • Additional Reading



How can I accept that disaster has overtaken my life when the world continues to move so tranquilly through its cycles?"- The Magistrate

Waiting for the Barbarians is JM Coetzee’s third novel and was published in 1980. It quickly garnered popular and critical attention for the relatively young South African author. It was awarded the CNA Prize (South Africa’s top literary award), the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize (Britain’s literary prize for authors under 40), and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (Scotland’s top publishing award as well as one of the oldest literary awards in the UK).

This short but powerful novel was written during the time that Coetzee taught literature at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He had returned to his native country in 1972 after the United States government..


He is fascinated with uncovering the mysteries of this ancient town, and speculates on the possible ends their civilization came to. Did they succumb to the barbarians of old and die encamped within the walls?

The Magistrate is not overly ambitious, and yet it soon becomes clear that even his modest hopes will prove extravagant. “When I pass away I hope to merit three lines of small print in the Imperial Gazette,” he says. “I have not asked for more then a quiet life in quiet times.” Despite the Magistrates temperate inclinations, he proves to be a ruthless observer of both his own nature and that of those he encounters. His awakening consciousness is unsparing and brutal as it systematically uncovers and destroys his illusions about life and the world.  

The sleepy frontier town, not even having facilities for prisoners, has idled along without event under the Magistrates stewardship, but has come recently to the Empire’s attention as stories of unrest among the barbarians have stirred the officials of the Third Bureau of the Civil Guard into action. The barbarian tribes, who are fishing people and aboriginals living a nomadic lifestyle on the edges of civilization, are rumored to be arming and organizing against the Empire. Colonel Joll and his men, the “doctors of interrogation,” come to the frontier with a particular theory of interrogation, “First I get lies, you see—this is what happens—first lies, then pressure, then more lies, then more pressure, then the break, then more pressure, then the truth,” Joll explains. “That is how you get the truth.”

The Magistrate comments dryly, to himself: “Pain is truth, all else is subject to doubt.”  Noting that about once every decade there is an eruption of hysteria about the barbarians, the Magistrate does his best to accommodate the Third Bureau, but finds himself impelled towards an inevitable confrontation with the powers he has served with a half-indifferent complacence for so many years...

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