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Waiting for the Barbarians: A Novel by J.M.…

Waiting for the Barbarians: A Novel (original 1980; edition 1982)

by J.M. Coetzee

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3,086471,835 (3.96)149
Title:Waiting for the Barbarians: A Novel
Authors:J.M. Coetzee
Info:Penguin Books (1982), Edition: 1St Edition, Paperback, 156 pages
Collections:Novels, Your library
Tags:African Literature, 20th Century, Fiction, Colonialism, Allegory

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Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee (1980)


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English (36)  Dutch (9)  Italian (1)  Swedish (1)  All (47)
Showing 1-5 of 36 (next | show all)
A disconcerting fable about a Magistrates downfall once he decides to oppose the Empires treatment of captured "barbarians". Far from being one-dimensional the narrative treats complicated themes like justice, guilt, civilisation, identity with which the Magistrate struggles. Coetzee's prose as economical and crystal clear as ever, creating strong character images such as of the colonel Joll and the crippled barbarian girl. This girl, tortured to almost blindness, becomes the Magistrates obsession, as she represents for him his guilt of the violence against her people. He wants to repair this guilt, cure her and at the same time to understand the cause of it. Why does man, even civilized man, resort to violence against his fellow man? The magistrate obsessively looks for answers in the girls wounds that he tries to "decipher", like ancient written testimonies, interrogates her, searches his memory of her before she was violated etc. When all fails, he undertakes a sort of cleansing pilgrimage, taking her back to her tribe. Once back he has to undergo the same violence himself.
It is knowledge, self-consciousness that creates guilt. Once you realize what is going on, animalistic passions like unlimited sex or rape and hunting are no longer guilt-free: Adam and Eve revisited. Ironically, the barbarians are the ones without guilt whereas the civilized world cannot escape it. The only remedy for us is to cut ourselves off from the outer world in an encampment and wait, purposly, impotent, disconnected from our true being. And this is precisely the state the civilized people of the poem of Cafavy are in, once they realize that the barbarians are not coming to set them free, to release them from their lethargic state. ( )
  stef7sa | Jan 5, 2017 |
I suppose that well-meaning yet complicit oppressors are like dirty old men massaging hot young torture victims but these themes were handled with more sophistication in Disgrace. ( )
  xicohtli | Jul 20, 2016 |
A difficult book to read, because it makes you think. The narrator is a magistrate of a sleepy frontier town of the Empire. The story unfolds around the threat of the Barbarians planning an attack along the frontier. Colonel Joll of the Third Bureau visits the town and has the mission of finding out the Barbarians plans. What this novel does is make the reader question, through the viewpoint of the magistrate, who really is the barbarian - the unseen threat who only appear as a crushed file of captives or the Empire itself, with its use of legitimised torture? Quite a hard-hitting novel with violence from the outset - although much of it is worse because of what isn't described. You find out snippets and later on the pieces come together but the reader journeys with the magistrate from the 'out of sight, out of mind' perspective through all his differing views and thoughts. While on some levels, the magistrate doesn't seem to learn much at all, on others he becomes very aware and 'grows' as a character. I can't say that I enjoyed reading this, there were certainly one or two places where I actually felt I couldn't read any more, but I was appreciative of it and it has made me think a bit. I think it will stay with me for a while. ( )
  sashinka | Jan 14, 2016 |
A beautiful book, gorgeous prose, and excellently written. The characters are clear, concise, resonate. The theme, as old as time, but still well drawn, well created and well crafted, gets to the heart of people, to how we treat each other as humans to humans, and how we are as our baser selves. ( )
  BenKline | Oct 29, 2015 |
Wow. I am glad I pushed on with this book. Coetzee's prose may be sparse but it is complicated. The whole of Waiting for the Barbarians is complicated.

The main theme is that of Empire. Maintaining the power of Empire, which requires the "othering" of those not of the Empire. In the small town on the frontier of the Empire, the nameless Magistrate watches over a small population minding its own business, living as well as it can.

One day representatives from the Empire (and the only characters who are given names) arrive. Rumors have swirled around about the impending attack from the Barbarians, and these representatives are sent to protect the village.

Torture ensues, executions, death, the Barbarians are "swept away" leaving one young woman who remains behind begging for scraps. The Magistrate, of course, is witness to the inhumane treatment of these people and takes the woman in. Their relationship is one of the oddest I've ever read.

He spends a lot of time massaging her with oils, paying particular attention to her broken ankles and bruises. They sleep together, but there is no sex. For that he visits one of the many girls upstairs. For about 50 pages, the man has an existential crises with his penis. Why does it work for his girl upstairs but not for the girl in his bed? Why is he comfortable stroking her but not sexually? (I don't know, maybe because she is the "other?")

Eventually, the Magistrate takes the girl back to her people. It is a long journey during which horses die, guards become surly, and they all stink to high heaven because they haven't bathed. (Coetzee spends a lot of time describing the foulness a body experiences when one is not allowed to bathe.)

This journey gets the Magistrate into terrible trouble, and he soon becomes "other." Arrested, tortured, neglected, the Magistrate reflects on what has become of him and understands that the mythical Empire has become the very barbarians being warned of.

Descriptions of torture made me gasp. The creativity, the brutality. I don't wan to know if these methods have really been used or are the product of Coetzee's imagination. They drive home the point that while demonstrating to its own population what being other means, an empire becomes other itself.

Shades of Orwell and Kafka lurk in the shadows of Waiting for the Barbarians. It is not an easy book to read. ( )
  AuntieClio | May 31, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 36 (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
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 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:

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
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)

Allegory of the war between oppressor and oppressed.

(summary from another edition)

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