“When I was young the mere smell of a woman would arouse me; now it is evidently only the sweetest, the youngest, the newest who have that power. One of these days it will be little boys.” -page 46
J.M. Coetzee’s 1980 novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, is written in the first person point of view of “the magistrate” in a non-specific empire. In many ways the novel is about the clashes of the old and new: such as the “civilized” Empire against the “wild” Barbarians & Nomads and the “unassuming” Frontier against the “disciplined” Capital. But I will be focusing on the old Magistrate’s relationships with three young people.
The Young Prostitute
“The girl whose nickname at the inn is The Star but whom I have always thought of as a bird…” -page 46
Early on in the novel the Magistrate says that he’s been seeing a young prostitute at the inn for a year now. In page 23 he says “I feel a quiet affection for her, which is perhaps the best that can be hoped for between an aging man and a girl of twenty.” He takes great comfort and pleasure in her excitement for him, even though he knows its faked: “And what a pleasure to be lied to so flatteringly! I embrace her, bury myself in her, lose myself in her soft bird-like flurries,” (page 42). Throughout the novel, he describes his loneliness and he goes to see her usually after something troubling has happened and he needs to clear his mind.
There comes a point in the novel where he sees the girl with a guy her own age. He sees how truly intimate and peaceful their relationship is and he feels shameful of himself: “it seems more obscene than ever that this heavy slack foul-smelling old body… should ever had held her in its arms,” (pg 97). The relationship he has with her is more meaningful to him than to her, because she is so small he feels tenderly for her and admires her youthful energy. But their relationship can never be real to her because she is doing her job and one in which she has to perform for several men in order to make a living. At the end the Magistrate is told that she left with the young man, his response: “When you said she was gone, I confess, it was as if something had struck me here, in the breast. A blow,” (pg 128).
The Barbarian Girl
“… until the marks on this girl’s body are deciphered and understood I cannot let go of her.” – page 31
After Colonel Joll and his army finish torturing the barbarians, they have them leave, this girl was somehow left behind. The Magistrate takes her into his home and he starts a ritual in which he messages her body with oil every night. Both of her feet were broken and she is partially blind due to being forced to stare at a hot metal rod held in front of her eye, she was also raped repeatedly by her torturers.
The Magistrate keeps trying to remember seeing her the day the barbarians were brought into the fort but he cannot remember what she looked like before she was tortured. He only remembers her all bruised and broken but not her actual features, all he can think is “How ugly… she is ugly, ugly,” (pg 47). Unlike with The Star, he is not sexually attracted to her but instead wants to understand something about her: “with this woman it is as if there is no interior, only a surface across which I hunt back and forth seeking entry,” (pg 43).
He ends up taking her back to her people. They take the journey with three other men, and when they start conversing with her, the Magistrate is surprised: “I am surprised by her fluency, her quickness, her self-possession… she is not just the old man’s slut, she is a witty, attractive young woman!” (pg 63). After this realization, they have sex. He also regrets not getting to really know her: “instead of giving her a good time I oppressed her with gloom,” (pg 63) and “she could have spent those long empty evenings teaching me her tongue! Too late now,” (pg 72).
The only time she says something about living with the Magistrate is in page 40 when he asks her, “And why do I want you here?” to which she responds, “You want to talk all the time.” The whole time they spent together was all about him. Even though he wanted to understand her, he was never able to figure out how to do it.
The Cook’s Grandson
“I… think of the little boy who brought me food, of how when my hand rested on his shoulder I would feel the healing power of the touch run through a body grown stiff with unnatural solitude.” – page 92-93
The Magistrate is eventually arrested after taking the barbarian girl back to her people. He is put in isolation and tortured before being released without reason. Through the time of his imprisonment, the only humane human contact he has is with the cook’s grandson who brings him his food.
The boy makes him feel cared for and somehow connected to society, that there are still people with hearts out there in the world. The Magistrate takes a paternal care toward the boy, wanting to give him something to remember him by, but he is unable to act on it. “I have nothing to give to him, not even a button; I have not even time to show him how to make his knuckles go click or how to catch his nose in his fist,” (pg 86).
With the short intervals he gets to see and interact with the boy it is mostly him asking him questions while the boy tries to act professional, like how the boy perceives the guards act. “He enters very erect and proud, bearing the tray, while the guard holds the door open,” (pg 85). The boy is too young to know for sure what is really happening in the Empire, but he tries to resemble the authority figures, which was originally the magistrate but is now the officials from the Capital.
The boy still has a sort of respect for the Magistrate, but is being shown not to by the new authority, “I can see that he is bursting to tell me something; but the guard has come in with him and stands with a hand on his shoulder,” (pg 88). Soon afterwards, they stop feeding the Magistrate and he stops seeing the boy. The next time he sees him is when the guards have the boy take part in his torturing, “Or else I do tricks for them. They stretch a rope at knee-height and I jump back and forth over it. They call the cook’s little grandson over and give him one end to hold,” (pg 116).
The Magistrate considers the boy a friend (“my little friend” page 88) because he is not yet old enough to become cruel and his actions are still sincere and pure, unlike his relationships with the two young women who both do not trust him because they have been used by him and by other people. Of his relationships with younger people, this one is the only one that is honest and perhaps the only one that is reciprocated, at least for a little bit.