For decades the Magistrate has been a loyal servant of the Empire, running the affairs of a tiny frontier settlement and ignoring the impending war with the barbarians. When interrogation experts arrive, however, he witnesses the Empire's cruel and unjust treatment of prisoners of war. Jolted into sympathy for their victims, he commits a quixotic act of rebellion that brands him an enemy of the state.
J. M. Coetzee's prize-winning novel is a startling allegory of the war between opressor and opressed. The Magistrate is not simply a man living through a crisis of conscience in an obscure place in remote times; his situation is that of all men living in unbearable complicity with regimes that ignore justice and decency.
'Waiting for the Barbarians is a distinguished piece of fiction, and what Mr. Coetzee has gained from his strategy of creating an imaginary Empire is clear. But are there perhaps losses too? One possible loss is the bite and pain, the urgency that a specified historical place and time may provide. To create a ''universalized'' Empire is to court the risk - especially among sophisticated readers for whom the credos of modernism have become dull axioms -that a narrative with strong political and social references will be ''elevated'' into sterile ruminations about the human condition....I cannot believe this was Mr. Coetzee's intention or, perhaps more important, that it is warranted by his novel itself. True, the Empire is abstract, timeless, placeless; but through the scrim of Empire, 'Waiting for the Barbarians renders a moment in our politics, a style of our injustice. Precisely this power of historical immediacy gives the novel its thrust, its larger and, if you wish, ''universal'' value. -- Irving Howe