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Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee

Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)

by J. M. Coetzee

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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English (43)  Dutch (9)  Italian (3)  Swedish (1)  All languages (56)
Showing 1-5 of 43 (next | show all)
Excerpts from my original GR review (Jul 2012):
- This is Coetzee's 1980 novel, his third published work.
- The story was certainly written allegorically to represent the repressive, paranoid South African government while apartheid still dominated. More broadly, it could represent the contrivances of 'empire' in any era. The narrator is "the magistrate", genial overseer of law courts and sundry operations of a dust blown fortressed outpost, at the edge of a nameless empire's frontier. Various nomads and "fisherfolk" live beyond the town walls, none of whom are considered threatening, until a military attachment arrives with instructions to deal with the "barbarians". Outliers are captured and marched in shackles through the town gates; beaten, tortured, starved.
- The magistrate, whose authority is dimmed under the warlike state, dares exhibit human compassion in his caring for a brutalized young woman, going so far as to cobble together an excursion to return her to her people, miles to the north. His attendants nearly mutiny under the harsh traveling conditions, and upon their return home the magistrate is arrested under suspicion of aiding the barbarians. Torture and filthy imprisonment await him. A degree of freedom comes, yet his fall is complete, as he lives as a virtual beggar and curiosity to the townsfolk.
- What especially shimmers in his writing here is the bleakness he paints, and the helpless circumstances of those caught under the heavy fist of a junta-like state of alert. The stark setting, "where the wind chases flurries of dust", pervades the story, a story told candidly, and to great effect through the narration by our nameless magistrate. There is an ethereal, otherworldly vagueness to this that appealed to me. ( )
  ThoughtPolice | Apr 26, 2018 |
This month I read Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee. A book so horrific in its truth of the evil that inhabits man that I had to stop at intervals to breathe. ( )
  DJadamson | Jan 4, 2018 |
This book is definitely 4.5 stars... Really fantastic. I didn't 'love' Disgrace as much as I thought I would, but this book convinced me Coetzee is a fucking great writer. This book is small but dense, in the best possible way. ( )
  weberam2 | Nov 24, 2017 |
Well, I must say that this book was much better than the other Coetzee that I read. In fact, it was quite profound. I think it will be one of those books that I will think about for a long time. So, thanks marko for the suggestion.

The magistrate of a small outpost in an unnamed empire is quite happy in his life. Nothing much happens but he has his friends and interests and an amenable girl to visit when the urge strikes him. Then Colonel Joll from the Third Bureau in the empire's Civil Guard arrives from the capital. He has captured an old man and a young boy along the way and he tortures them to learn what he can about the barbarians' plans. The magistrate is upset by the torture which results in the old man's death. Colonel Joll heads out into the plains and brings back some more prisoners who are also tortured. One of these is a young girl for whom the magistrate feels pity and remorse and perhaps love, as well. He starts by massaging her feet, which were broken at the ankle and healed improperly, and continues to clean and massage her and have her sleep in her bed. However, they do not have intercourse. After a year the magistrate decides to return the girl to her people. It is a long and difficult journey and when he returns Colonel Joll is at the outpost. There is a rumour that the magistrate has been giving the barbarians information and he is thrown in jail. He is left there for months while Joll leads a war party to deal with the barbarians. Terror about the barbarian attack mounts although there is no evidence that the barbarians have any plan to attack. A few soldiers and Colonel Joll eventually make it back just before winter sets in. They were never attacked but the barbarians led them into the desert and then disappeared. The armed men could not survive in the desert. Meanwhile, in the town, the soldiers that were left have terrorized the citizens and then abandoned them. Any private citizen who could manage it has also abandoned the town. Food supplies are diminished and it is doubtful that those who remain can survive the winter. However, the magistrate takes charge again to make what preparations can be made.

So, the question is: just who are the barbarians in this story? Is it the nomadic people who just seem to want to live life as they always have? Or is it the "civilized" people from the empire who torture, kill, maim, lie, cheat, rape etc.? The parallels between this story and the European treatment of aboriginals whether in North America, or in Australia or Africa are obvious. My feeling is that the barbarians are all around us. Some people are worse and some people are better. The magistrate in this book at least had a conscience and thought about his role. After reading this book I think I now believe that Coetzee has a conscience, which is more than I would have given him credit for after reading Disgrace.

This following passage was one that resonated with me:
I think of a young peasant who was once brought before me in the days when I had jurisdiction over the garrison. He had been committed to the army for three years by a magistrate in a far-off town for stealing chickens. After a month here he tried to desert. He was caught and brought before me. He wanted to see his mother and his sisters again, he said. "We cannot just do as we wish," I lectured him. "We are all subject to the law, which is greater than any of us. The magistrate who sent you here, I myself, you--we are all subject to the law." He looked at me with dull eyes, waiting to hear the punishment, his two stolid escorts behind him, his hands manacled behind his back. "You feel that it is unjust, I know, that you should be punished for having the feelings of a good son. You think you know what is just and what is not. I understand. We all think we know." I had no doubt, myself, then that at each moment each one of us, man, woman, child, perhaps even the poor old horse turning the mill-wheel, knew what was just: all creatures come into the world bringing with them the memory of justice. "But we live in a world of laws," I said to my poor prisoner, "a world of the second-best. There is nothing we can do about that. We are fallen creatures. All we can do is to uphold the laws, all of us without allowing the memory of justice to fade." After lecturing him I sentenced him. He accepted the sentence without murmur and his escort marched him away. I remember the uneasy shame I felt on days like that. I would leave the courtroom and return to my apartment and sit in the rocking-chair in the dark all evening, without appetite, until it was time to go to bed. (p. 136)

When I was attending law school I took jurisprudence which is the study of the philosophy of law and the question of what is justice is one that we discussed frequently. Laws are not always just. In fact, depending on your position and point of view, they are often not just. I don't know that I believe we can only uphold the laws. Sometimes I think we have to challenge them. But certainly we can't allow "the memory of justice to fade". ( )
  gypsysmom | Aug 9, 2017 |
Beautifully written, offering a vivid description of the effects of colonialism on South African natives. How many times will narratives of white male saviors who fall in love with and save women who can't speak will continue to be written? Despite it's staunch political stance on colonialism, it is written through a colonist's lens, writing the same tired narrative that puts women of color in non-speaking roles, and white saviors at the center of a story about a native struggle. ( )
  GabbyF | Jul 2, 2017 |
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» Add other authors (17 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Coetzee, J. M.primary authorall editionsconfirmed
Baiocchi, MariaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
BascoveCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bergsma, PeterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For Nicolas and Gisela
First words
I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire. Is he blind?
One evening, rubbing her scalp with oil, massaging her temples and forehead, I notice in the corner of one eye a greyish puckering as though a caterpillar lay there with its head under her eyelid, grazing.

It has been growing more and more clear to me that until the marks on this girl's body are deciphered and understood I cannot let go of her. Between thumb and forefinger I part her eyelids. The caterpillar comes to an end, decapitated, at the pink inner rim of the eyelid. There is no other mark. The eye is whole.

I look into the eye. Am I to believe that gazing back at me she sees nothing--my feet perhaps, parts of the room, a hazy circle of light, but at the centre, where I am, only a blur, a blank? (Penguin Ink 35-36)
When Warrant Officer Mandel and his man first brought me back here and lit the lamp and closed the door, I wondered how much pain a plump comfortable old man would be able to endure in the name of his eccentric notions of how the Empire should conduct itself. But my torturers were not interested in degrees of pain. They were interested only in demonstrating to me what it meant to live in a body, as a body, a body which can entertain notions of justice only as long as it is whole and well, which very soon forgets them when its head is gripped and a pipe is pushed down its gullet and pints of salt water are poured into it till it coughs and retches and flails and voids itself. They did not come to force the story out of me of what I had said to the barbarians and what the barbarians had said to me. So I had no chance to throw the high-sounding words I had ready in their faces. They came to my cell to show me the meaning of humanity, and in the space of an hour they showed me a great deal. (Penguin Ink 132-33)
"No, you misunderstand me. I am speaking only of a special situation now, I am speaking of a situation in which I am probing for the truth, in which I have to exert pressure to find it. First I get lies, you see — this is what happens — first lies, then pressure, then more lies, then more pressure, then the break, then more pressure, then the truth. That is how you get the truth."
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Book description
My copy, "Withdrawn from Toronto Public Library" (which now has 42 copies of the 1999 edition and one copy of the 1982 edition with the emblem "Winner of the Nobel Prize" on a differently illustrated front cover, and this single copy in the Reference Library downtown) is a basic yellowing cheap paperback Penguin, no intro notes, and the last page is . . .the last page next to the cover. The cover design and illustration, pre-Nobel Prize -- are by 'Bascove', a New York artist of considerable reputation (see http://www.bascove.com/ ). So this copy is of worth to me for its cover illustration as well as the content.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140283358, Paperback)

These deluxe editions are packaged with French flaps, acid-free paper, and rough front.

"A real literary event."--The New York Times Book Review

"A story of profound beauty, clarity and eloquence, which even at its most melodramatic holds to a biblical nobility."--Chicago Tribune Book World

Other Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century:

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Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
Swann's Way by Marcel Proust
My Antonia by Willa Cather
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
White Noise by Don DeLillo

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:05 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

When interrogation experts arrive, the Magistrate is jolted into sympathy for their victims and an act of rebellion gets him imprisoned as an enemy of the state.

» see all 3 descriptions

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