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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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3,426612,413 (3.97)164
For decades the Magistrate has been a loyal servant of the Empire, running the affairs of a tiny frontier settlement and ignoring the impending war with the barbarians. When interrogation experts arrive, however, he witnesses the Empire's cruel and unjust treatment of prisoners of war. Jolted into sympathy for their victims, he commits a quixotic act of rebellion that brands him an enemy of the state. J. M. Coetzee's prize-winning novel is a startling allegory of the war between opressor and opressed. The Magistrate is not simply a man living through a crisis of conscience in an obscure place in remote times; his situation is that of all men living in unbearable complicity with regimes that ignore justice and decency. -- from http://www.powells.com (August 28, 2014).… (more)
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» See also 164 mentions

English (46)  Dutch (9)  Italian (3)  Swedish (1)  German (1)  Spanish (1)  All languages (61)
Showing 1-5 of 46 (next | show all)
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 |
My best friend harborerd this idea that after David Foster Wallace's death, we would honor the author by completing his syllabus for a critical reading class that DFW provided at Somona. We never pursued the task but I did read this and was enthralled. Later when discovering that Philip Glass had adapted such to an opera, I was especially intrigued. ( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |
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 |
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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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