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Waiting for the Barbarians (Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century) Paperback – October 1, 1999

4.2 out of 5 stars 154 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

"A real literary event" —Irving Howe, The New York Times Book Review (front-page review)

"I have known few authors who can evoke such a wilderness in the heart of a man.... Mr. Coetzee knows the elusive terror of Kafka." —Bernard Levin, The Sunday Times (London)

From the Inside Flap

Set in an isolated outpost on the edge of a great Empire, WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS is a startling allegory of the war between oppressor and oppressed. The Magistrate, the novel's fascinating narrator, has been a loyal servant of the Empire, running the affairs of the frontier settlement, dabbling in antiquarianism, and ignoring constant reports of a threat from the "barbarians" who inhabit the uncharted deserts beyond the village. But when military personnel arrive with captured barbarians, he becomes witness to a cruel and unjust defense of the Empire. Outraged and, with military command controlling his village, powerless to prevent the persecution of the barbarians, he finds himself involved in an affair with one of the victims, a girl crippled, blinded, and orphaned by the torturers. Their relationship, intimate but devoid of true understanding, finally pushes him to a quixotic act of rebellion that brands him an enemy of the state. Rendered in an austere but richly suggestive prose, Coetzee's novel addresses universal political and philosophical issues of power and justice.
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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century
  • Paperback: 152 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (October 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140283358
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140283358
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 0.4 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (154 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #352,198 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on November 16, 1999
Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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