Original Research

The coming of the barbarians

L. McDermott
Literator | Vol 11, No 2 | a801 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/lit.v11i2.801 | © 1990 L. McDermott | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 06 May 1990 | Published: 06 May 1990

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L. McDermott, Vista University, Port Elizabeth, South Africa

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J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the barbarians has, paradoxically, both some of the most sublimely touching images in the Coetzee canon and some of the most convincingly vicious. It remains one of Coetzee’s most thought-provoking novels because it examines the universal phenomenon of man’s belief that his significance can only be validated through his repression of others who are different from him. The apparently historical account of the events occurring in and around a once-strategic fort, reduced to an outpost on the frontier of “the Empire” is belied by the complexity of the presentation of the account by the magistrate. The magistrate’s dilemma is that of a liberal humanist official in an oppressive society. Although he abhors the Empire’s methods and its attempted genocide, his official status and his citizenship deny him escape from moral complicity in his society’s actions. The Empire itself proves to be caught in the Hegelian master/slave syndrome: the oppressive master fears his oppressed servant. Barthes’ codes and Todorov’s propositional moods are all textual signifiers in the inter-textual game which constitutes the reader’s experience of the text as an eternal becoming. The novel reflects Coetzee’s unabated concern with the insidious, perpetual and universal revivification of colonialism and its concomitant, inevitable oppression of its own people and its vassal-status by the imposition of the myth of an infallible ideology. Related to this concern is the effect on a liberal humanist as a man in such an oppressive society: be he a worker, an official or, like Coetzee, an academic who is also a novelist.


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Crossref Citations

1. Appendix: South Africa
Dorothy Driver
The Journal of Commonwealth Literature  vol: 26  issue: 2  first page: 159  year: 1991  
doi: 10.1177/002198949102600209