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Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)

by J. M. Coetzee

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
3,940712,487 (3.95)174
The modern classic from double Booker Prize winner J.M. Coetzee - soon to be a major film starring Mark Rylance, Robert Pattinson and Johnny Depp For decades the Magistrate has run the affairs of a tiny frontier settlement, ignoring the impending war between the barbarians and the Empire, whose servant he is. But when the interrogation experts arrive, he is jolted into sympathy with the victims and into a quixotic act of rebellion which lands him in prison, branded as an enemy of the state. Waiting for the Barbarians is an allegory of oppressor and oppressed. Not just a man living through a crisis of conscience in an obscure place in remote times, the Magistrate is an analogue of all men living in complicity with regimes that ignore justice and decency.… (more)
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» See also 174 mentions

English (57)  Dutch (9)  Italian (2)  Swedish (1)  Spanish (1)  German (1)  All languages (71)
Showing 1-5 of 57 (next | show all)
Waiting for the Barbarians presents the problems of war and political governance. In fictional form, it details what happens when ruthless men take control while more moral and intelligent men stand by doing nothing.
This is not a book to be read as a light-hearted romp or bit of escapism. It is a deep intellectual rendering of the age-old problems of civilization. How does one culture co-exist with another? What happens when greed or envy become politically guiding forces? What are the consequences of actions that were based upon false information? What happens when a civilization sacrifices the moral high ground?
For people looking for a good, thoughful, deep, and perceptive read, this book fills the bill. ( )
  PaulLoesch | Apr 2, 2022 |
Didn't get it ( )
  ibkennedy | May 24, 2021 |
A clear indictment of all nations built on colonial ambition but more broadly the propensity within all of us to characterise and brutalise The Other, Coetzee’s novel pulls no punches.

An anonymous magistrate rules over a small outpost on the edge of the frontier. His political placidity is disturbed by envoys from the capital who bring with them rumours of a Barbarian uprising, rumours he feels are being fomented as an excuse for a roundup. He’s not wrong.

The novel falls into two halves. The first tells of the magistrate’s management of the settlement in the face of outside interference. In particular it details his relationship with one particular indigenous woman.

This relationship is a the wider parable in microcosm. The two find their are mutually incomprehensible. One is all powerful, the other crippled and blinded. Attempts at intimacy are one-sided. The solution to all of this is, again, unilateral and it is at this point the book pivots.

The second half sees the magistrate in a very different position from the first. There’s less pschology going on here between reader and writer, I felt as the writing became more matter of fact. The ending is ambiguous and leaves the reader to make their own conclusions about what they have witnessed and what might yet come to pass.

Coetzee’s writing is sparse and perfectly suited to this novel. It doesn’t have the immediacy of Disgrace, and falls far short of the vast ephemeral beauty and tragedy of Islands. But if you’re having trouble getting hold of Islands, this will whet your appetite while you’re waiting. ( )
  arukiyomi | Dec 27, 2020 |
Coetzee works to his own standard. A trial of imagination through the border town surrounded by "barbarians", the story feels a little dated compared to his other work. ( )
  ephemeral_future | Aug 20, 2020 |
This had a much bigger impact on me than when I read it the first time in 2008. The world has changed so much since then. ( )
  francesanngray | Jul 27, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 57 (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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Dedication
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?
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)
"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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Wikipedia in English (1)

The modern classic from double Booker Prize winner J.M. Coetzee - soon to be a major film starring Mark Rylance, Robert Pattinson and Johnny Depp For decades the Magistrate has run the affairs of a tiny frontier settlement, ignoring the impending war between the barbarians and the Empire, whose servant he is. But when the interrogation experts arrive, he is jolted into sympathy with the victims and into a quixotic act of rebellion which lands him in prison, branded as an enemy of the state. Waiting for the Barbarians is an allegory of oppressor and oppressed. Not just a man living through a crisis of conscience in an obscure place in remote times, the Magistrate is an analogue of all men living in complicity with regimes that ignore justice and decency.

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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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