Just One Man:
Silence and Defiance
In J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians
This past summer, I had occasion to find myself in a number of airport terminals in various cities around the world. The scenes and memories of each mostly blend together in a mill of nondescript faces, foreign tongues, and ambling bodies. Much of the time I spent waiting, clutching a coach ticket, could be likened to an animated state of sleep. I was there to function, to shuffle into line and put my body in a seat and nothing more. I was awoken from this once in the international terminal in Milan, and it was a rather rude awakening.
While sitting in one of the seemingly endless rows of black, ...view middle of the document...
My own disapproval was immediate, as was my judgment, and yet I resided to an instant course of inaction. Why? I asked myself that question as I picked up my bags and walked away to find a fresh place to wait, a place that didn’t echo with a man’s strike against a child.
It is true that it is easier to sit than it is to stand, easier to say nothing than to speak. It is often more comfortable…unless one’s comfort becomes one’s guilt and shame. It is one thing to turn away from a single slap and another entirely to turn away from a beating. There is a measure of self disappointment in both, but the margin between the two is great. In Waiting for the Barbarians, J.M. Coetzee explores one man’s inner struggle between silence and defiance in the face of injustices both great and minor. It is through showing the Magistrate’s responses to these injustices that Coetzee makes his own stand against man’s inhumanity to man and conveys a strong statement to his audience: abuser and onlooker are one in the same when the witnesses of injustice remain silent and inert and it is only through voice and action that one can maintain their own humanity in the presence of cruelty.
The reader meets the Magistrate as a comfortable bureaucrat, a man that has “not asked for more than a quiet life in quiet times.” (p.8) While the Magistrate relates to the reader experiences of unease with the treatment and view of the Barbarians (indigenous people), he relates no experiences of having voiced his views or acted to defend the people he claims for which to have sympathy. It is not until his peaceful life on the frontier is intruded upon by the arrival of Colonel Joll that the Magistrate begins to question his own role as silent onlooker to the events that surround him. The Magistrate begins to look to his own behavior, hoping to find a distance between himself and the cruel Colonel only to find that his own opinion of himself leaves little space between them:
On the other hand, who am I to assert my distance from him?
I drink with him, I eat with him, I show him the sights, I afford
him every assistance as his letter of commission requests. (p.5)
The Magistrate begins to realize that, by treating Colonel Joll as a civilized member of society, he is signaling his acceptance of the Colonel’s practices, even though he does not truly accept them. After recalling how the two of them have managed to behave well toward one another during Joll’s first visit, the Magistrate relates that “the memory leaves me sick with myself.” (p24) The Magistrate does not want to lose a part of his humanity through his association with the inhumane. He realizes that through his silence and his willingness to perform his duties despite his own misgivings, he comes closer to those he wishes from which to distance himself. Even as he reaches out in his first encounter with the Barbarian girl in an effort to help her, he admits “the distance between myself and her...