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Waiting for the Barbarians


Waiting for the Barbarians

Waiting for the Barbarians
First edition cover
First edition cover
Author J. M. Coetzee
Country South Africa
Language English
Genre Novel
Publisher Secker & Warburg
Publication date
27 October 1980
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 156 pp (hardback edition)
ISBN ISBN 0-436-10295-1 (hardback edition)
OCLC 7742021
823 19
LC Class PR9369.3.C58 W3 1980

Waiting for the Barbarians is a novel by the South African-born Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee. First published in 1980, it was chosen by Penguin for its series Great Books of the 20th Century and won both the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for fiction. American composer Philip Glass has also written an opera of the same name based on the book which premiered in September 2005 in Erfurt, Germany.

Coetzee took the title from the poem "Waiting for the Barbarians" by Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy.[1][2]


  • Plot 1
  • Awards and nominations 2
  • Adaptations 3
  • Notes 4
  • External links 5


The story is narrated in the first person by the unnamed magistrate of a small colonial town that exists as the territorial frontier of "the Empire". The Magistrate's rather peaceful existence comes to an end with the Empire's declaration of a state of emergency and with the deployment of the Third Bureau—special forces of the Empire—due to rumours that the area's indigenous people, called "barbarians" by the colonists, might be preparing to attack the town. Consequently, the Third Bureau conducts an expedition into the land beyond the frontier. Led by a sinister Colonel Joll, the Third Bureau captures a number of barbarians, brings them back to town, tortures them, kills some of them, and leaves for the capital in order to prepare a larger campaign.

In the meantime, the Magistrate begins to question the legitimacy of imperialism and personally nurses a barbarian girl who was left crippled and partly blinded by the Third Bureau's torturers. The Magistrate has an intimate yet uncertain relationship with the girl. Eventually, he decides to take her back to her people. After a life-threatening trip through the barren land, during which they have sex, he succeeds in returning her—finally asking, to no avail, if she will stay with him—and returns to his own town. The Third Bureau soldiers have reappeared there and now arrest the Magistrate for having deserted his post and consorting with "the enemy". Without much possibility of a trial during such emergency circumstances, the Magistrate remains in a locked cellar for an indefinite period, experiencing for the first time a near-complete lack of basic freedoms. He finally acquires a key that allows him to leave the makeshift jail, but finds that he has no place to escape to and only spends his time outside the jail scavenging for scraps of food.

Later, Colonel Joll triumphantly returns from the wilderness with several barbarian captives and makes a public spectacle of their torture. Although the crowd is encouraged to participate in their beatings, the Magistrate bursts onto the scene to stop it, but is subdued. Taking the Magistrate, a group of soldiers hangs him up by his arms, culminating his understanding of imperialistic violence in a personal experience of torture. With the Magistrate's spirit clearly crushed, the soldiers mockingly let him roam freely through the town, knowing he has nowhere to go and no longer poses a threat to their mission. The soldiers, however, begin to flee the town as winter approaches and their campaign against the barbarians collapses. The Magistrate tries to confront Joll on his final return from the wild, but the colonel refuses to speak to him, hastily abandoning the town with the last of the soldiers. The predominating belief in the town is that the barbarians intend to invade soon, and although the soldiers and many civilians have now departed, the Magistrate helps encourage the remaining townspeople to continue their lives and to prepare for the winter. There is no sign of the barbarians by the time the season's first snow falls on the town.

Awards and nominations

After Coetzee won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003, Penguin Books named Waiting for the Barbarians for its series "Great Books of the 20th Century". The Nobel Prize committee called Waiting for the Barbarians "a political thriller in the tradition of Joseph Conrad, in which the idealist’s naiveté opens the gates to horror".[3]


The opera by Philip Glass is based on Coetzee's book and Christopher Hampton's libretto adapts the story faithfully. The opera premiered on September 10, 2005, at the Theater of Erfurt, Germany, under the direction of Guy Montavon. The lead role of the Magistrate was sung by British baritone Richard Salter, Colonel Joll by American baritone Eugene Perry, who has starred in a number of Glass operas, and the barbarian girl by Elvira Soukop. The musical director of the premiere was Dennis Russell Davies. As Glass told journalists and the Erfurt audience at a matinée, he sees scary parallels between the opera's story and the Iraq War: a military campaign, scenes of torture, talk about threats to the Empire's peace and safety, but no proof. The Austin Lyric Opera performed the American premiere of Waiting for the Barbarians on January 19, 2007, conducted by Richard Buckley and under the direction of Guy Montavon, who was joined again by Richard Salter and Eugene Perry as the Magistrate and Colonel Joll, respectively, and mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala[4] as the Barbarian Girl.
In August 2012, the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town presented Alexandre Marine's stage adaptation of the novel.[5] The production toured at Montreal's Segal Centre for Performing Arts in January and February, 2013.[6]


  1. ^   Book Review Desk
  2. ^ "Waiting for the Barbarians". Constantine P. Cavafy. Retrieved May 27, 2008.
  3. ^ "The Nobel Prize in Literature 2003 to John Maxwell Coetzee - Press Release". Nobel Media AB 2013. Web. 6 Feb 2014.
  4. ^ "Adriana Zabala, mezzo-soprano". Retrieved 2010-07-12. 
  5. ^ "What's On". Retrieved 2012-08-21. 
  6. ^ "Waiting for the Barbarians". Retrieved 2012-08-21. 

External links

  • ISBN 0-09-946593-0 (UK paperback, Virago)
  • Cavafy's poem "Waiting for the Barbarians"
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