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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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3,574642,436 (3.95)165
For decades the Magistrate has run the affairs of a tiny frontier settlement, ignoring the impending war between the barbarians and the Empire. When the interrogation experts arrive he is jolted into sympathy with the victims and an act of rebellion which lands him in prison.
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» See also 165 mentions

English (49)  Dutch (9)  Italian (3)  Swedish (1)  Spanish (1)  German (1)  All languages (64)
Showing 1-5 of 49 (next | show all)
This book contains some powerful meditations on sexuality, aging, colonization, torture, shame, and the state. I read this as a parable to the War on Terror, though it would fit with many other conflicts: the proxy wars in Latin America, the colonial wars in Africa, even the Black liberation movements inside the US in the 1970s.

Coetzee demonstrates in the very beginning of the book the ruthlessness of a state apparatus in a community created by the state but living largely outside of it's influence. The occupiers of the land in Waiting for the Barbarians are living in something close to stasis with the indigenous, until the Empire decides to make its mark on history and pull the settlement out of its stasis: torturing and murdering with lightning speed, the higher-ups of Empire make a threat out of one particular group of people to garner support for their sadistic treatment: "What has made it impossible to live in time like fish in water[...:]? It is the fault of Empire! Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existance [...:] in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe."

But the settlement bureaucrat finds it difficult to argue with the logic of Empire: he has been nursed so long on the same assumptions of Empire, that to challenge them would be inimical to his entire worldview: "Easier to lay my head on a block than to defend the cause of justice for the barbarians: for where can that argument lead but to laying down our arms and opening the gates of the town to the people whose land we have raped?" This mirrors the opposition to war in the US: those who hold the assumptions of empire, and who have been raised with those assumptions, cannot reconcile these beliefs and advocate for justice for the colonized. They are stuck in powerless position of upholding the pillars that hold up the institution of war, while merely wishing the war would end.

The narrator witnesses the savagery of torture and interrogation, and then experiences the imprisonment for himself. There is no capacity for the accused, imprisoned, and locked up to be justly given hearing, for: "they will never bring a man to trial while he is healthy and strong enough to confound them. They will shut me away in the dark till I am a muttering idiot, a ghost of myself; then they will haul me before a closed court and in five minutes dispose of the legalities they find so tiresome."

Guantanamo Bay prisoners are held without fair trial and only after having been broken by the prison system are they given the space to defend themselves. It also evokes the experiences of Black Liberation prisoners in the US, like the Angola 3. These men were clear-headed human beings, but have been reduced to much less, their brain turned to jelly after decades kept in solitary confinement, a broken shadow of their former selves. Without reasonable recourse, the prisoner lashes out at his nearest captors physically, "If he comes near me I will hit him with all the strength in my body. I will not disappear into the earth without leaving my mark on them."

The book is powerful in its demonstration of how deeply individuals are affected by torture. The book captures the feeling of powerlessness and stupidity felt by those who are shamed and broken by the state. ( )
  magonistarevolt | Apr 24, 2020 |
This has been on my TBR shelf for several years. I thought it was finally time to try it. Hmmmm. I guess I'm just not the target market for a Nobel (or sometimes even a Pulitzer) winner book. I didn't particularly like the writing style - I didn't find it poetic or lyrical but rather kind of dry. I keep feeling like there was deep theme explorations going on, but if so, they were a bit to obscure for me.

I saw the overall theme of oppressor and oppressed and his struggle with his role in that. I saw the backdrop of a government manufactured war. But I have to say I didn't really care about any of the characters and didn't see any growth of the Magistrate....just lots of questioning his place in the world.
Definitely not one of my faves this year. ( )
  Terrie2018 | Feb 21, 2020 |
Nobel Prize winner? Really? Bland, kinda boring, not particularly engaging. Lots of creepy old-man-young-woman sex fetishizing and obsessing.

I get that it's got political and social undertones, but it failed for me as a story. Read for a while, then gave up and skimmed. Didn't look like I missed much.

I'd forgotten that Coatzee isn't really my thing. Guess this reaffirms that. ( )
  reg_lt | Feb 7, 2020 |
A real reading experience. Coetzee explores the personal experience of suffering and deprivation in all its immediacy. Also describes some unorthodox sexual experience too. The disastrous breakdown of some expeditions into unknown territory in extreme weather remind me of description of the retreat of the French army in War and Peace. ( )
  jkennedybalto | Apr 11, 2019 |
This really is a profound book which looks at the power of empires and the affect fear has on a government and its people. Set in a remote region of an unknown country, the main character the the magistrate who oversees the area. The area is on the far reaches of the empire; on the "other side" of the region walls are the barbarians, indigenous people of varying degrees of contact with the region. Life goes on pretty normal until the arrival of the Colonel Joll of the Third Bureau with two prisoners which have been taken after a supposed raid by the barbarians. The two prisoners are an old man and a young boy who seem to know nothing about any raid. They are tortured until they tell the "truth". The magistrate is uncomfortable with the situation attempting to tell the Colonel that there is no problem with the barbarians.

Colonel Boll soon takes a force and goes out to subdue the barbarians and a new set of prisoners arrive, chained together. One young woman is tortured along with is with her father. The young woman has lost much of her eyesight and her feet are damaged. The magistrate takes pity on her and takes her to his home where he cares for her; they sleep together but there is no real connection between the two. After a new Major arrives from the empire, things go from bad to worse as there are more and more rumors of impending invasion by the barbarians. The magistrate decides to return the woman to her people and leaves with three other men and the woman to the vast unknown which is barren and cold. Through much hardship they are able to return the girl to her tribe.

When the magistrate and the other men return, he is deemed a traitor and is imprisoned and tortured. The brutality of the story is hard to read. The reader questions who the real barbarians are. Eventually, things settle down, the soldiers from the empire leave and at the end of the story, life seems to return to normal.

So - this brings into question the reasons powerful empires are constantly in fear of the weakest around them. Who are the real barbarians, is this type of war necessary, what are the affects of fear on a society. The fact that Colonel Joll returns with a broken army says a lot; they never even saw the barbarians, but were defeated by the harsh conditions of the world outside.

This is a though provoking book which could easily have been written in 2019. How powerful can one empire be and still live in a state of fear. I read "Disgrace" many years ago and it didn't have much impact; this book is truly powerful. ( )
  maryreinert | Mar 30, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 49 (next | show all)
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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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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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