on November 16, 1999
From previous reviews on this page I'm convinced many readers did not read the same novel I did. As a South African I might have had priviledged access to a state of mind, but this novel soars above even such limitations. It is a masterpiece. It has haunted me with its power and subtlety for years. I first read it as a student, and have re-visited it twice since. Few books have affected me in quite the same way. Sometimes I open a chapter just to be inspired by the simplicity and elegance of the prose. Not a word wasted. To peel away the layers of meaning - civilization, barbarians, cruelty, love, impotence - seems unnecessary. I've always read it as a poem, thrilling at the powerful undertow of meaning.
In his book "Waiting For The Barbarians" Coetzee gives us another timeless window into a soul. Here Coetzee depicts the frivolous and capricious nature of the continuing war machine in the backdrop of 1970's South Africa. The book, in its nature was very reminiscent of George Orwell, in such tales as "Shooting An Elephant" where the life of a civil servant and the attrocities he must perform and witness shape the personality and thought patterns of the man.
Here, Coetzee highlights the true cruelty that humanity can inflict upon other humans in its pursuit of whatever seems to be the right thing as determined by those in power at any particular point in time. It need not make sense, it need not be morally defensible, it only need be possible and performable, and it may be done. In the regime at the time, such was the situation, South Africa, like so many other places has been a war torn place for a very long time.
In making his point, Coetzee puts together one of the finest sentences I have ever seen on paper, when he says this as the protagonist walks away from a senseless torture scene, "Let it at least be said, if it ever comes to be said, if there is ever anyone in some remote future interested to know the way we lived, that in this farthest outpost of the Empire of light there existed one man who in his heart was not a barbarian." The poignancy of that statement is deeply moving especially in these times in America. The ability of Coetzee to capture so distinctively and so personally the despair that is illustrated and experienced, and truly suffered by one in the position that his protaganist is in, is the greatness of Coetzee. To be able to transmit that feeling to his readers, as is his style, is his mastery. All sensitive readers should spend the time to consume this mere 157 page book, which gives at least 600 pages of expressiveness. Another fine piece of literature from a modern day master.
on July 30, 2005
WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS by J.M. Coetzee, the Nobel Prize Winner in Literature, is a novel about a city magistrate in a frontier village of a nameless empire. The narrator, whose name we do not learn, becomes involved with a "barbarian" woman after a visiting soldier captures some tribespeople and brings them back to the camp for "interrogation." The woman is crippled (specifically, she is hobbled as well as blinded), and the magistrate begins a strange relationship with her.
During their brief romance, so to speak, the magistrate doesn't have sex with this object of his affection, but instead, he likes to wash her body, and fall asleep next to her (he does occasionally see a prostitute in the town, though). The woman has a job during the day in the kitchen. There is genuine affection between the magistrate and the barbarian, while in the town the soldiers from the empire are interrogating (torturing) native peoples and building fear in the town against the barbarians. The magistrate, however, believes that the barbarians are no threat to the Empire, that they have their own rhythm and lifestyle on the land. As the fervor from the Capital builds against the Barbarians, the magistrate finds himself questioning and challenging his own society, particularly after a trip he takes to find the barbarians. When he returns from the dangerous journey, he faces consequences that cause the reader to question authority, its right to power and its right to brutality.
This novel was one of my favorite Coetzee's, behind "Disgrace" and "Age of Iron," because it has a more cohesive storyline than, say, "Elizabeth Costello" or "In the Heart of the Country." But it was also, again, quinstessentially Coetzee, dealing with some of his consistent issues, such as linguistics and communication, power structures, colonialism, force and meaning, and the journey as process and perhaps a symbol of growth, insight or acceptance. I think we can see in Coetzee, in this earlier work, that these themes and images of the whole are present and pulsing.
The preoccupation with meaning, communication and language is present here. The magistrate collects little wooden slips that he has found in the ruins of a people long since disappeared from the border areas of the frontier town. The marks on the slips and their opaque meaning to the magistrate and his contemporaries illustrate how ephemeral written language can be.
But he also doesn't speak the language of his own people, in terms of understanding the values of the military types who come to represent the empire. And this is where we start to deal with the theme of power, control, the state and colonialism, and the clash of civilizations over legalisms (boundaries, prisoners, etc). The cultural clash comes to be not only between the Empire and the Barbarians, but between the frontier magistrate who sees the barbarians as people and his own aggressive, colonizing culture.
This clash leads to a changed situation for characters in the book. And the book provokes the reader to start working through the question of what does authority really mean? Is force equal to power, really? How does one square a reality in which one is suddenly at odds with the structure and culture that kept one safe for so long? The magistrate struggles with this, as well. It is as if learning this lessen makes him naive again, and blaming the Empire becomes a panacea for the magistrate, who is, I might add, not a very sympathetic character, but is all we have... We can see the beginning and end on the wooden slips the magistrate collects. The writers of these have gone away, past even memory, the language is meaningless, their words meaningless designs found in the sand.
And as always, with Coetzee, we must consider, what does language even mean? What does it do? Our magistrate loops his thoughts around what words mean, what his self-talk means, what all this has to do with reality and understanding.
This book expertly entwines these themes of colonizers and their language, what it means to them, what they believe, what they tell others, and what they cannot understand through a narrative that is engaging on a plot level as well as a thematic one.
I loved this book. It would, I think, be an effective introduction to the works of Coetzee and also serves as a way to further inform our understanding of his preoccupations, themes and questions.
on March 30, 2006
Coetzee is a master of putting very complex stories into simple packagings. This book is very deep, yet the story is simple: a magistrate of a wild outpost of an empire leads an easy life in peace until a colonel in the army comes by, which set off a number of events that ultimately put the magistrate against the empire.
Coetzee writes in a very unique manner. Aside from the colonel (Joll), no one has a name in the book, he just refers to everyone as "the girl" or "the magistrate". As soon as the colonel visits the city with an obsession about an impending barbarian invasion, the entire town becomes paranoid with these barbarians. The barbarians in fact are just simple nomads that live in the adjacent mountains, but the obsession grows so quickly that the magistrate, when he tries to reach out to barbarians and understand who they are, he gets misunderstood as a barbarian helper and so is put in jail.
Some of the best writing is the description of his time in prison and the abuse he underwent. Coetzee plays with metaphors relating to the body and its conditions in ways that leaving interesting impressions and provokes much thought. I am still grappling to get the right message out of the book, but conclude that there are many.
Overall, this is an enjoyable and very short book. It is true literature, so not a very light reading if you are looking for a passtime. I needed to stop a couple of times to reflect on it, and was highly impressed by Coetzee. He definitely deserved the Nobel Prize.
on October 14, 2000
This is the third book I have read by Coetzee and each time I venture into his world, I am surprised at how he is able to represent complicated themes in so simple a story. In this novel, a magistrate rules his town peacefully until Colonal Joll comes and insists that the barbarians are a dangerous group that need to be quelled immediately. He is a wicked man who takes his weakness and manipulates it into cruelty towards others. Slowly, the town becomes equally obsessed with the "enemy" and the need to restore the peace which ironically was theirs for the taking before Joll arrived. Through a series of events, the magistrate is believed to have comitted treason and so undergoes direct persecution from Joll and his men. He is ripped from his place of office, thrown in jail and treated like an animal for almost a full year. It seems to him he is the only one fighting for justice and, more importantly, the only one standing up to Joll's cruelty. Strangely enough, Coetzee only assigns an actual name to Joll. The magistrate is simply "the magistrate," his lover, "the girl," etc.,etc. Other themes I have observed about Coetzee are his protagonists are often in a state of disgrace (the actual title to his most recent work) somewhere or somehow which, in turn, create the conflict of each story. Also, each protagonist is an infidel in one way or another. Married or single, he is free to answer whatever his sexuality requests of him. I have only read three of his books, so these trends may certainly not be consistent throughout all his writing. I just found the trend interesting. At any rate, Waiting for the Barbarians is captivating in its telling and gripping in it's underlying moral. I would highly recommend it be part of your must-read repetoir if it is not already.
on October 15, 1998
Set in a landscape which moves almost unnoticably from what could be the Mediterranean, to desert, to tundra, to unrecognizable terrains, this idiosyncratic book allows an unusually independent view of patterns of human behaviour. It shows how often we depend for our understanding of the world on presumptions unconsciously signified in the labels we give to different times, places and individuals' positions within society. Coetzee subverts and calls into question these labels by taking them away as soon as they are offered. Our narrator, the Magistrate, could be in any country in the world and in any time in history; these things are constantly hinted at but never confirmed. He is an official, a respected member of his society at the beginning, but as soon as the reader gets used to this idea, it is denigrated bit by bit as first we see his private, human weaknesses, his failures with relationships, and then the violent public stripping of his position as he is suddenly no longer a rather corrupt big fish in a small pond but a reviled victim of political repression himself.
The openness of this narrative still leaves me wondering whether I have been indoctrinated to create my own personal 'barbarians' in my perspective of other human beings with all their mysteries, contradictions and possible interpretations. One thing is for sure, this is a very human book.
on March 4, 2002
Coetzee is South Africa's most compelling writer. His prose is hard and precise and his stories crafted with a sharpness that cuts to the quick.
"Waiting for the Barbarians" is profound and powerful. Bleak and desolate at times, but sparkling often with rare luminosity.
The magistrate is a character that embodies a particular dillema during Apartheid, or any period of opression. What to do? What to risk? What is our moral responsibility? It's an uncomfortable question flung at a world often so enamored with comfort it refuses to act against injustice. Unless it suits them politically.
As a writer and South African, Coetzee remains for me a constant inspiration on how to address the troubled past. There is redemption and bleakness, despair and small joys.
Coetzee knows the complexities and doesn't stoop to easy answers. If truth be told he is the South African most worthy of the Nobel Prize.
on June 5, 2000
On the surface, Waiting for the Barbarians is a short novel on the life of a magistrate stuck in a remote outpost of an "empire" (the author does not disclose the location of this outpost, nor identify this empire). His life is completely turned upside-down with the arrival of a superior officer who takes a brutal hand to "tame" the already docile native population ("the barbarians").
However Coetzee, without being heavy-handed, peels back the human drama about all the people involved . The overall effect is devastating, and it is oh-too-easy to believe how such a nightmare is probably being re-played in life somewhere in the world everyday.
Waiting for the Barbarians is very similar, almost too similar, to Heart of Darkness (by Joseph Conrad). However, in my opinion, Coetzee's story is much more accessible - it should appeal to a wider audience.
I'm looking forward to reading other works of Coetzee. He is clearly a very talented writer.
on February 5, 2004
The setting of J.M. Coetzee's "Waiting for the Barbarians" would seem like a political dystopia if it weren't so similar, if not identical, to many real situations in world history up to today. The premise is that a relatively new civilization of settlers have colonized a land formerly inhabited by natives, whom they call barbarians, and have established garrisons and strongholds to protect themselves from imagined attacks by the barbarians. The settlers constitute a political entity which is referred to as the Empire, the implication being that they want and need to expand their borders continually to allow their civilization to thrive, pushing the barbarians further back into the hinterlands.
It certainly sounds realistic, but the novel has the edge of science fiction. It seems to be set in a fantasy world, since there is no indication of time or place with respect to real history and geography, except that the era seems no more modern than Victorian. Contributing to the novel's grimly impersonal tone is the fact that most of the characters are unnamed except for Joll and Mandel, two military officers who exemplify the Empire's hawkish stance. By contrast, the first-person narrator, a magistrate and reluctantly loyal servant of the Empire, possesses the novel's humanist conscience in that he secretly sympathizes with the barbarians, condemning the unnecessary brutality of the soldiers who raid the lands and seize barbarian prisoners.
Like the archetypal rebels in the dystopian novels "Brave New World," "Darkness at Noon," and "1984," the narrator is a symbol of nonconformist thought and action in the face of an oppressive political regime. Consequently, he is accused by his superiors of consorting with the enemy -- he had been sheltering (and seducing) a barbarian girl who had been captured and beaten by the Imperial soldiers -- and is punished. But the conflicts he experiences are internal as much as external; he is a firm pacifist but cannot imagine any other way to live than under the comfort and protection of the bellicose Empire.
Whether or not the novel is supposed to be allegorical, it doesn't have the tone of a political diatribe. It is as compassionate and as insightful as its narrator, understanding people's need for security, land, and freedom, carefully measuring different perspectives on imperial war. (Explaining his dovish opinion to a soldier, the narrator is conscious of his apparent weakness as a potential defender of the Empire.) Perhaps the novel merely intends to present an extreme scenario in which a mentality of tribalism has completely usurped humanity: Will a complex system of walls and gates continue to divide society, in the name of empire or other agenda, until we are huddling behind parapets, waiting for "barbarians" who may never come, who may not even exist outside of our imaginations?
on November 15, 2003
Waiting for the Barbarians came up in a discussion we were having around the dinner table; I'm not sure why. And my father mentioned that he had read it more than ten years ago, and certain scenes were still sharp in his mind, like he had lived through them himself. The writing made everything snap to life.
Memorability isn't the best measure of the quality of a work (by the end of Anna Karenina, I had forgotten a lot of what I'd read, but still remember the palpable sensation that I had just read the greatest thing ever written) but a book that achieves lasting vividness is at least doing something right.
So I was actually reading this book when Coetzee received the Nobel prize. It wasn't surprising; he's an original but accesible writer who frequently addresses questions of race in a country torn by strife and only recently ruled by a semi-authoritarian government: if that's not a lock, I don't know what is.
I read a quote on the back that compared Coetzee to Kafka; the comparison is apt but also brings out some of the weaknesses of this book. The first major difference is that Kafka has a sense of humor - his two major novels are, essentially, bureaucratic farces. Nothing in this book will so much as raise a smile. This isn't necessarily an aesthetic flaw. It just means that I enjoy rereading Kafka and probably won't pick up this book again.
The second difference is that Kafka's entire world is of a piece. Nothing feels like phony symbolism or some sort of extended allegory that's been inserted into an essentially realistic story: you're immediately thrown into a bizarre dream world that makes a certain kind of sense, and you stay there for the entire length of the novel. This is not true of Waiting for the Barbarians. It reads something like a parable, since the country and the ethnicity of the people are never identified, but it has a plausible plot that could take place in any number of countries with only small alterations.
But this largely realistic story is constantly interrupted by events that cannot be taken at face value. The magistrate's bathing of the barbarian woman didn't make psychological sense to me: it feel too obviously symbolic. The same with Coetzee's use of one of fiction's oldest devices: the inexplicable dream. The girl in the snow without a face - I suppose it connects with the barbarian girl's blindness, and his inability to remember her features, and his desire to smooth out the wounds on her body. That's all great. But I didn't read this book to write a thesis, and all of these parts felt clumsy and outside the reality of the actual events.
The parts of the book that were startling and original, I thought, dealt with the impact of pain and humiliation on the human psyche. Coetzee is best when exploring human cruelty, and the position of people driven to the limits of tolerable existence: the Magistrate hanging from the tree in women's clothes, begging for scraps, starving in his room. All of it told in prose that is unobtrusively elegant, that describes the most horrific acts without ellipses or euphemisms, and with simple and concrete physical detail. For example, a boy has been tortured, and the magistrate wants to know how he got the scabs and bruises on his belly and groins. Here's what the guard says to him:
"A knife," he whispers back. "Just a little knife, like this." He spreads his thumb and forefinger. Gripping his little knife of air he makes a curt thrust into the sleeping boy's body and turns the knife delicately, like a key, first left, then right. Then he withdraws it, his hand returns to his side, he stands waiting.
This is good writing: honest and direct without being pointlessly lurid. The book's main flaws are in structure, not prose - after the barbarian woman leaves, one of the poles of the book is gone, and the remainder feels shapeless and disconnected from the first half. The point of view also caused some problems. The first person present tense gives the action a feeling of immediacy, but it also gives the magistrate's thoughts a certain false quality: while I was reading it, I kept thinking, he's having this complex epiphany on the spot? Although he's clearly a smart guy, the book suffers from his extended disquisitions on various subjects; they feel more like essays. But some of them are good essays. Here's one, that I think is the book's most profound thesis:
The children never doubt that the great old trees in whose shade they play will stand forever, that one day they will grow to be strong like their fathers, fertile like their mothers, that they will live and prosper and raise their own children and grow old in the place where they were born. What has made it impossible for us to live in time like fish in water, like birds in air, like children? It is the fault of Empire! Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.