Uncomfortable truths aplenty come to mind when you read and absorb J.M. Coetzee’s famous dystopian narrative, Waiting for the Barbarians. But humour, levity and a happy ending? There are none to be found. Nevertheless the book as well as the 2019 film version of it are worth experiencing –
in that order though: the book first. And this is why.
Did you know Waiting for the Barbarians is a film now?
Were it not for its availability on Netflix this year, I would not have known that the film version of the 1980 novel Waiting for the Barbarians, by J.M. (John Maxwell) Coetzee, existed. I had no idea, so when an ad for that popped up, I was very surprised. The film had premiered at the Venice Film Festival in Sept. 6, 2019, and was released a year later in the United States, on Aug. 7, 2020 – unfortunate timing in the middle of that lockdown year.
Along with the low-profile distribution, the film received mainly two types of reviews: lukewarm ones from those who wanted more action and drama, and negative reviews from those who interpreted it as a morality tale about today’s politics and didn’t like it: They called it “a heavy-handed allegory”, a “political fable” full of “easy declarations”, and even “an anti-Rudyard Kipling story” – whatever that means. I’m afraid that those reviewers and viewers had not read the book and had no idea what the film is actually about.
If they had actually noticed in the credits that the screenplay was written by J.M.Coetzee himself, they would immediately have known how the film was going to be. And if they had read the book, they would have known what sort of story to expect.
Those who who are familiar with the author and the book will find that watching the film is not a matter of sitting back and relaxing: you have to concentrate, reliving every moment in the book. It is grimly gripping – same as the book. So I cannot say I “enjoyed” the film, though Mark Rylance and Johnny Depp were both excellent in their roles. And did I feel the film get into my head in the same way that the book had done? Definitely yes. Which is why I’m writing this post – I am feeling compelled to comment.
You have to understand the backstory
This is really an instance where you should read the book and understand the backstory and the context before you see the film, because otherwise the film just appears to be morose, slow, understated, and abstract.
Waiting for the Barbarians is a book that is not easily consumed, but is definitely memorable.
The novel is set in a fort in a remote location on the border of an unspecified “Empire”, at an unspecified time, where a “Magistrate” keeps the order and lives a peaceful, dull life studying local historic artifacts. There is a tacit agreement of peace between the citizens of the Empire in and around the fort, and the nomads, called barbarians, elsewhere who resist the rule of the Empire. Then a policeman “skilled in interrogation” (not a military man like many critics have said) by the name of “Colonel Joll” arrives with his troops to find out the truth about a suspected insurrection by the barbarians. His attacks on the barbarians and torture of his captives lead, as can be expected, to retaliation by the barbarians, the imprisonment and ruin of the magistrate, and all-out war. Eventually, Joll and his men flee and the Magistrate is left with a handful of inhabitants, no food or ammunition, and no hope, to await the arrival of the barbarians.
What most viewers and critics may not know, or care to know, is that the book was written in South Africa, by a South African author, and first published in South Africa in 1980. The 1980s, culminating in 1985 with the State of Emergency, were the worst years of the “South Africa War for Liberation” a.k.a. “the Struggle” against Apartheid, which lasted from 1960 to 1994. During that period there were other wars in which South Africa was involved, internally or externally, for instance the Border War (1966 to 1990), and the Natal Civil War (1987 to 1994). I use the name “South Africa War for Liberation” cautiously, because it is a sensitive, complicated subject and difficult to ring-fence with one phrase, and people get very angry about it – but apparently it is now in common use so I’ll stick with it.
Waiting for the Barbarians is in some ways a parable, but it is a parable which compares a fictional country and people to South Africa and those years of racial conflict. Comparing the film’s theme and plot to the politics and social activism of today are what readers and viewers naturally do to make sense out of what they experience when viewing the film – but that is not what the author intended when he wrote it more than forty years ago. Yes, it was first published 41 years ago.
Coetzee’s screenplay keeps to his original words and tone to a great extent. He did not soften the depiction of barbarity shown not just by “Colonel Joll” or “the Magistrate” but by characters across the board. Coetzee wanted to depict in this novel, and in many of his other books as well, humankind’s “heart of darkness” and the moral quandaries to which this leads, drawing parallels to South Africa during the War for Liberation which was basically a war about race and power.
The film’s designers might have coloured in the scenes and settings with exotic details such Sahara-like deserts, snowy mountain peaks, Mongol-looking horsemen, and soldiers in 19th century French Foreign Legion uniforms, in order to obfuscate the setting – but the themes, motifs, plot, conflict, and the core idea of the narrative all relate closely to that period in South Africa’s history.
What is the most important thing?
Waiting for the Barbarians has at its core a higher truth for the reader to discover. Coetzee has said: “All the facts are too many facts. You choose the facts insofar as they fall in with your evolving purpose”. Furthermore, a distinction should be made between “truth to fact” and what he calls “the more vexing question of a “higher truth”.1 Ref. footnote
The ambiguity of the characters and what they do or – crucially – do not do, are keys to understanding the novel and critiquing the film, and getting to that “higher truth” to which Coetzee has referred.
As the Magistrate says about himself and about Col. Joll:
Above: Scenes from the film. Samuel Goldwyn Films acquired and distributed Waiting for the Barbarians. It was directed by Ciro Guerra; screenplay written by J.M. Coetzee; based on the novel of the same name by J.M. Coetzee; starring Mark Rylance as the Magistrate, Johnny Depp as Colonel Joll, Robert Pattinson as Officer Mandel and Gana Bayarsaikhan as “The Girl”. It was filmed on location in Morocco and Italy.
Waiting for the Barbarians By C. P. Cavafy (Translated by Edmund Keeley) What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum? The barbarians are due here today. Why isn’t anything going on in the senate? Why are the senators sitting there without legislating? Because the barbarians are coming today. What’s the point of senators making laws now? Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating. Why did our emperor get up so early, and why is he sitting enthroned at the city’s main gate, in state, wearing the crown? Because the barbarians are coming today and the emperor’s waiting to receive their leader. He’s even got a scroll to give him, loaded with titles, with imposing names. Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas? Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts, rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds? Why are they carrying elegant canes beautifully worked in silver and gold? Because the barbarians are coming today and things like that dazzle the barbarians. Why don’t our distinguished orators turn up as usual to make their speeches, say what they have to say? Because the barbarians are coming today and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking. Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion? (How serious people’s faces have become.) Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly, everyone going home lost in thought? Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven't come. And some of our men just in from the border say there are no barbarians any longer. Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? Those people were a kind of solution. Source: C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems (Princeton University Press, 1975)
The novel is about the barbarians, and waiting for them to do whatever horrible thing people imagine. And the clue to who these barbarians are can be found in the poem with the same name by the Greek poet C.P. (Constantine Peter) Cavafy (1863 – 1933), from which Coetzee took the title of the book. (On the left.)
The poem depicts debates between senators, probably those of Ancient Rome, while they await the arrival of barbarians. The Roman Senate was a governing and advisory assembly in ancient Rome and was established in the first days of the city of Rome (traditionally founded in 753 BC). The fall of the Roman Empire or the fall of Rome eventually happened from CE 376 to 476, and the Empire was overrun tribes of Goths and other non-Roman peoples, called barbarians, who had in times past been forced to pay tribute to their Roman occupiers. So whether the barbarians in the poem are coming to pay homage to the emperor or coming to sack the city is unclear.
The term “barbarians”, which originated in Ancient Greece, referred to people who the Greeks thought were not like them. The term originates from the Greek: βάρβαρος (barbaros pl. βάρβαροι barbaroi). In Ancient Greece (12th to 9th century BCE to the end of antiquity c. CE 600), the Greeks used the term to describe those who did not speak Greek and did not follow classical Greek customs, frequently peoples they have not subjugated. In the subsequent Roman Empire, and Roman Athens, the term was adapted and used to describe tribal non-Romans (non-citizens) such as the Goths, Germanics and the Celts. These tribes who would eventually overrun the Roman Empire.
Throughout history, people have been called barbarians because they were different from those who ruled. But if some “barbarian” had learned Greek and started wearing a toga, would they still have been a called a “barbarian”? Possibly not. This leads us to the conclusion that in the novel there is not that much difference between the “barbarians” outside the fort, and the people inside it.
It could be that the barbarians of whom the people are so terrified are not the wild desert nomads attacking from the outside, but the people inside the fort themselves, and the citizens of the Empire.
For instance, in the book, the inhabitants of the fort are quick to jeer at the captive Magistrate and go along with the torture of the captive barbarians, even getting a child to take part, proving that their civilized ways are just a thin veneer.
As for the Magistrate, in his private apartment he keeps a barbarian woman who cannot walk, who is just called “The Girl”, for his own peculiar pleasures, while she is at his mercy. Eventually, the Magistrate learns that “The Girl” did not see him as a good man:
Baker's wife: She couldn't understand you. She didn't know what you wanted from her. I didn't know the two of you were intimate. Magistrate: Oh, we talked. Sometimes she used to cry and cry and cry. What bird has the heart to sing...in a thicket of thorns? Baker's wife: Oh, no, it wasn't what they did to her. It was you. You made her very unhappy. Magistrate: I-I did? Baker's wife: Yes, didn't you know that? (Extract from the script of Waiting for the Barbarians)
In the book the barbarians are in fact not outside the fort in the wilderness, but everywhere, on both sides of the conflict.
The Magistrate says to Col. Joll: “The people who… whom you call barbarians are nomads. They will never permit themselves to be bottled up in the mountains. Well, sorry to be frank. Isn’t that what war is about? Compelling a choice on someone who would not otherwise make it?” (from the film script).
This statement could remind informed readers of what the War for Liberation in South Africa was about. It is one of the “higher truths” that Coetzee referred to and that he put into the novel for readers discover and think about.
In the foreword to A book of friends: In honour of JM Coetzee on his 80th birthday (2020), edited by Dorothy Driver, American philosopher Jonathan Lear writes about Waiting for the Barbarians: “I felt I was in the presence of truth.” Truth, insight and soul-searching – yes, you will experience those in the book and in the film. Humour, levity and a happy ending – no. But the book and the film are nevertheless worth experiencing, in that order.
About J.M. Coetzee
J. M. Coetzee, born 9 February 1940, held a series of positions at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, notably in the Department of English Language and Literature, from 1972 until his retirement in 2000. Coetzee was the first writer to be awarded the Booker Prize twice: for Life & Times of Michael K in 1983, and for Disgrace in 1999. In 2003, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. For his services to literature he has been honoured with knighthoods by the governments of France and the Netherlands. He is the recipient of honorary doctorates from universities in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, South Africa, France, Poland, Argentina, Colombia and Mexico. In 2002 he emigrated to Adelaide, South Australia, where he lives with his partner, Prof. Dorothy Driver. In 2012 the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice was established at the University of Adelaide, where he is a distinguished member of the University community.
The most acclaimed and hotly debated of the 15 novels he has written are:
- Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) – James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize
- Life & Times of Michael K (1983) – Booker Prize
- The Master of Petersburg (1994) – French Prix Femina étranger, Commonwealth Writers’ Prize
- Disgrace (1999) – Booker Prize, Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the film adaptation of Disgrace won the International Critics’ Award
- The Death of Jesus* (2019) – *”Jesus” as in the Spanish name, the third of a trilogy, first published in Spanish with the title La muerte de Jesús and distributed throughout Latin America, cited in media across the world as one of the most anticipated novels of 2020
About the header
“The Course of Empire” is a series of five paintings, of which this painting is one, created by Thomas Cole in the years 1833 to 1836. The one I amended for the post header is called “Destruction”. The series is notable in part for reflecting popular American sentiments of the times. The images in the paintings reflect an idealized, pre-urban Archaic Greece, and this particular one, “Destruction”, was perhaps inspired by the Vandal sack of Rome in 455 AD. (Source: Wikipedia)
Reference 1: 1991 Interview with J.M. Coetzee by David Attwell, in Current Writing 3(1): 117-22, quoted in D.Phil thesis by Paul Gready, South African Life Stories Under Apartheid – Imprisonment, Exile and Homecoming, University of London, 1997