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

by J.M. Coetzee

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2,800452,085 (3.97)119
Member:george1295
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
Rating:****1/2
Tags:African Literature, 20th Century, Fiction, Colonialism, Allegory

Work details

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

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English (34)  Dutch (9)  Italian (1)  Swedish (1)  All languages (45)
Showing 1-5 of 34 (next | show all)
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 |
South Africa - a broken nation, war torn for what seems to be forever. Waiting for the Barbarians is a story of moral differences and power. A story depicting the cruelty of humans upon others by the hand of power. The torture scenes are raw, leaving the reader disturbed. The prose both moving and powerful as only Coetzee pens.

"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."

The story is poignant and deeply moving, Coetzee's words leave you breathless. The characters so contrasting - an increasingly sympathetic magistrate and a sadistic, cruel colonial, and of course the barbarians the innocent. A story lingering with the reader for quite a while. Similar to Conrad's Heart of Darkness - haunting, disturbing, memorable.

"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."
( )
  Melinda_H | Apr 22, 2014 |
South Africa - a broken nation, war torn for what seems to be forever. Waiting for the Barbarians is a story of moral differences and power. A story depicting the cruelty of humans upon others by the hand of power. The torture scenes are raw, leaving the reader disturbed. The prose both moving and powerful as only Coetzee pens.

"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."

The story is poignant and deeply moving, Coetzee's words leave you breathless. The characters so contrasting - an increasingly sympathetic magistrate and a sadistic, cruel colonial, and of course the barbarians the innocent. A story lingering with the reader for quite a while. Similar to Conrad's Heart of Darkness - haunting, disturbing, memorable.

"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."
( )
  Melinda_H | Apr 22, 2014 |
I'm pretty sure it's no coincidence that Coetzee's two best books - this one, and Michael K - have relatively little to do with old mens' sexuality. Sure, the Magistrate goes to whores. Don't all men in Coetzee's world? But he doesn't obsess over it. Without the endlessly dull repetition of how much this old man with the paunch and the shanks and the slack and the pendulous wants to nail that fine young filly over there, Coetzee's books actually say something interesting and have some emotional force. I wonder if someone could edit out all that crap and leave, say, Disgrace, Summertime, Slow Man, and Diary of a Bad Year as four solid short stories? I imagine so.

Anyway, everyone should read this book. It's not that subtle, but none of his books are, and it's not quite as offensively blatant as Foe. It'll take you three hours to read, tops. Go for it. ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
My thoughts:
• I had a hard time getting into this book. This is the third time I have tried to read Coetzee and have concluded that his writing style just does not appeal to me.
• I also think that this book might have had a greater impact or resounded with me better if I had read it when it was first published as over the years till now I have read/learned about oppression and colonialism and similar subjects.
• It showed the physical abuse/torture as a way to break the spirit and mind. Also thought that this helped to show while others who were part of the oppressor class/race that did not agree with the handling/treatment of the “barbarians”/oppressed would hesitate to speak out or help the oppressed. And how the oppressor controlled the messages about the oppressed.
• There was not much emotional connection for me with this book – I was surprised because of the subject matter. ( )
  bookmuse56 | Dec 27, 2013 |
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J.M. Coetzeeprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bergsma, PeterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For Nicolas and Gisela
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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?
Quotations
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)
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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 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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:35:47 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Allegory of the war between oppressor and oppressed.

(summary from another edition)

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