Waiting for the Barbarians is a political allegory about the paranoia at the roots of imperial narratives and the blood lust of colonial violence. Written during the apartheid era in South Africa, the novel is a heart of darkness fable, reflecting the racism and fear of an Empire with an imagined enemy within.
The Empire in the novel is fictionalized, set in an unspecified historical period and location, though it resembles South Africa. At the edge of the unnamed Empire live so-called barbarians, who visit the border towns to trade. The novel’s first-person protagonist, an unnamed magistrate, is the head of one of these outpost towns. The magistrate has been living in peace in his sleepy outpost, content to serve his Empire.
Over the course of the story, however, he is confronted by the brutalities that keep the Empire alive. New men from the Empire arrive on a campaign against their barbarian enemies and the magistrate is forced to face the fact that either the nature of his Empire has changed, or he is now seeing its dirty work up close.
Waiting for the Barbarians is a torture novel, about those who sadistically inflict pain on their enemies, displaying an appetite for cruelty. It’s also a parable of power and the effects of imperial paranoia, as the Empire becomes the very "barbarians" that seeks to destroy.
On another level, it’s a novel of inconvenient truths and the discomfort of a liberal individual who prefers to live in denial of the violence that makes their freedom possible. The magistrate does not want to be associated with the methods of the Empire. But when one of their victims, a maimed and blinded young nomad girl, is left to him, he takes her in and tries to ameliorate her suffering. Yet as he tends to her and closely examines himself, it becomes apparent that it is not her suffering he is attempting to alleviate, so much as his own guilt.
As a universalized allegory for power and violence, the novel works as a close examination of the psychology of “white guilt” or the psychological burden of the beneficiary.