Matt's Reviews > Waiting for the Barbarians

Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
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Jan 04, 2009

it was amazing
Read in January, 2009

"From such beginnings grow obsessions: I am warned." pg.79

This quote, taken wildly out of context, serves as an accurate description of my first experience reading J.M. Coetzee. Having read this small book in its entirety throughout the last twenty four hours, I now have the urge to read his other works as soon as possible. It is interesting how Mr. Coetzee and this book in particular have become a recurring Goodreads meme of sorts over the last few weeks, so i'm guessing that i'm not alone in this newly emerged obsession.

'Waiting for the Barbarians' is the story of the Magistrate (the only name this character is given throughout the book) who has been in charge of a remote settlement on behalf of the Empire for many years. His methods seem to point at a rule through benevolence. Fears mount that a group of barbarians outside the city walls are planning an attack and the bureacratically mysterious Empire sends additional troops and agents in preparation. The agents are brutal in their dealings with suspected barbarians, and the Magistrate finds out what it means to be on the wrong side of the Empire upon engaging in actions that call his loyalty into question.

This is a fairly generic plot description, essentially a reworking of the book description provided above. The reason for this is because that is not the real story here. Coetzee's prose is very close to perfect, as it seems that each word of this book was written with such precision and exactness. There is no excess writing going on here, and each word must hold its place in the arrangement in order to achieve the desired effect. This book is truly beautiful in its grotesqueness

'Waiting for the Barbarians' was written in 1980, but some of the descriptions of torture read like a compendium of newspaper headlines from the last few years. I challenge anyone to read this book and not recall terms such as Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition, or waterboarding. One of the brilliant ways that Coetzee has achieved this "pulled from the headlines" feeling is through the use of allegory. The Empire, the geographical setting, and the time period in which the story takes place are never explicitly stated, and this seems to give the work a timeless quality.

Coetzee also manages to subtly weave so many themes into this small volume (160 pgs.). These include such things as questions of the nature of justice, how the world treats those that are considered different or "the enemy", and the nature of the state as an instument of control.

One of the themes that I have personalized from this book is the question of what it means to be a man from the viewpoint of standing up for basic human kindness and dignity. The Magistrate failed to take a stand against the injustices that he saw early in the story and despite his relative position of power and comfort this seemed to take a toll on him through guilt, a sense of incompleteness, and sexual impotence. He seems to regain part of his whole as he stands up to the brutal agents of the state, albeit at the price of pain, humiliation, and loss of status. Perhaps i'm being too overly-analytical here, but in recent years I have noticed a disturbing portrayal of men arise in mainstream entertainment as being typically lazy, scheming (usually overweight) dolts. If you doubt this assertion, I direct you to the tv show "Everyone Loves Raymond", Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, and any role played by actor Kevin James. When the alien archeologists are sifting through the rubble in the distant future and stumble across these DVD boxed sets, they will obviously conclude that the ambitious, beautiful, career-oriented women kept us around solely because we had the market cornered on seminal fluid. What's more, most of us work for large, impersonal corporations (an interesting parallel for the Empire). When layoffs are announced two weeks before Christmas, we are usually too busy being damned glad that our names are not on the list as opposed to speaking up for those that have just been shat upon. Has that aspect of our manhood been downsized in this current age, or are we (read "I") too busy rushing home to type up "clever" book reviews to seize the little, day-to-day opportunities to make a difference? WWtD?*

*Disclaimer: Anyone who may be reading this and comes to the assumption from the previous paragraph that i've gone Gandhi in 2009, keep in mind that i'm speaking about standing up for basic human decency for everyone except those people who pull out in front of me while driving. I still think that they should be pistol whipped...

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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

Good stuff Matt...


message 2: by Manny (new)

Manny I really must read this book! One stellar review after another...


RandomAnthony Yeah, everyone seems to love it, I agree, must check it out...thanks, Tad.


message 4: by Amanda (new)

Amanda I shall give you my highest compliment, Tadpole:
I read this entire review even though it was a long as hell and I've never read the book. :)


Emma Its not a book to "love". I grew up in a country like this. It's a book to make you highly uncomfortable and self searching. It's a great book but not one to love. Now that slowly slowly the US "Empire-status" is crawling onto the table to be discussed its a book that every American maybe should also read. Kind of must, if you want to stay human, male or female.


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