RandomAnthony's Reviews > Waiting for the Barbarians

Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
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Jan 15, 09

I’m going to write two Waiting for the Barbarians reviews. The first, in italics, is the one that someone seems to expect, the second is the one I would normally write. Take your pick!

Waiting for the Barbarians always reminds me of this time I was on a cross-country flight from DC to Oakland. This 400 pound Samoan guy in a black silk suit sat across the aisle from me. He feverishly wrote in his journal the entire flight, whispering things like “holy fuck!” and “yes, shit, I’ve got it!” to himself over and over again until the flight attendants asked him to stop before they had to kick his fat ass off the plane for scaring the shit out of the old ladies who thought he might be a terrorist and didn’t realize his sumo knot wasn’t the same as a turban. By the way, a Samoan once almost sodomized me (it was an honest misunderstanding) in the Thai embassy in Paris. I’d tell you about that but I don’t want to get too far away from the book. Finally curiosity got the best of me and I leaned over and asked the Samoan what he was doing. He looked me up and down, well, as much up and down as you can look while the object of your attention is sitting in an airline seat, and said, “Fuck you.”

I said, “Fuck you back, asshole. Who do you think you are, Joll or Mandel?”

He froze and responded, “What the fuck did you say?” So I repeated what I said. Then he said, “So you’ve read Waiting for the Barbarians? What did you think?”

I told him I thought it was pretty good.

He said, “Fuck that pretty good shit. I wrote my dissertation on that book.”

I immediately regretted asking because everybody knows that anybody talking about his dissertation is boring as shit, but I had just pissed, and I couldn’t pretend I had to go again, so I politely listened.

He continued, “Remember that show called Designing Women? That one with Delta Burke, the lady who married that guy from the show where he drove around in an RV and helped people? Listen! Designing Women IS Waiting for the Barbarians. Delta Burke, or Suzanne Sugarbaker, is the Empire. And remember her sister? Julia Sugarbaker? The one Dixie Carter played? She was the magistrate, the one they put in jail. Julia was always trying to be reasonable and keep the peace and Suzanne kept messing things up. Holy fuck, my dissertation chair creamed his pants when he read my final draft. He said it was the best literary analysis he had ever read, especially since I focused on the temporal nature of government and the ever-shifting role of fortune by focusing on the way that Charlene was first played by Jean Smart and then replaced by Jan Hooks.”

I was in awe. “Man, I used to watch that show all the time. I think my first masturbatory fantasies were about Delta Burke. I still like big girls.”

“I’m with ya, brother.” We high-fived across the aisle and he went back to writing. He never told me what he was writing about.

Ok, here’s my real review…

Waiting for the Barbarians was my introduction to Coetzee, and I’m glad for goodreaders for pointing me in the direction of a guy who can flat-out write. Now, there are a slew of good reviews of this book (Tadpole’s, Donald’s) so rather than copy my esteemed peers I’ll add a few elements I felt were particularly important.

First, I admire Coetzee’s handling of the psychology of isolation and persecution. At no point does the author paint the magistrate as a noble hero; a lesser author, I think, would have played up that angle to the text’s detriment. The passages about the magistrate alone, in the granary, are quite powerful.

Second, I admire the author’s description of the breakdown of the body. He does a fantastic job of describing how quickly one can fade while at the same time acknowledging the toughness of the desire to keep breathing.

I had a hard time, and this is my fault, with the desire to overlay South African history (about which I know next to nothing) over my interpretation of the text. My gut tells me that Coetzee wanted to transcend South African, and even governmental, overtones and delve deeper into the darkest parts of human nature. He does a fine job in a quick 150 pages. Maybe I’ll read Disgrace in the future as well.
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Reading Progress

01/10/2009 page 10
01/13/2009 page 90
56.25% "I wasn't sold on this book for the first twenty-five pages, but it's getting good now..."
01/13/2009 page 125
78.13% "I'm almost finished...now, it's no Cujo or the books that lady writes who does the "A is for...B is for..." thing, but it's ok. :)" 1 comment

Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (last edited Jan 16, 2009 05:33AM) (new)

Wow, he wasn't getting into it after the first 25 pages and now `its getting good'. Sounds like a popcorn movie or Stephen King book. I'm sure Coetzee was cowering in fear somewhere that you weren't going to finish his book. I can picture him huddled in some closet, palsied and drooling. Please Random Anthony, like my book. I know it doesn't offer the quick, easy fix of a Chuck Klosterman book, I know it might force you to step out of your self-referential, hipster bubble, but please just try. Wow, all is right with the universe. If you would've gave it a bad review, RA(not your real name,I know-and those are the reviewers I respect the most-the ones who don't put their real names behind their reviews) If not I would've had to take off some stars from my own review.

message 2: by RandomAnthony (last edited Jan 13, 2009 06:52AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

RandomAnthony Uh...ok. Hope you're doing well, sir. This was just a status update,not a review. I'm not quite sure how to respond, so, heck, I'll stay quiet. Fighting about this sort of thing isn't worth it.

Chloe Well shit, if the cool kids are reading it then I better get on the ball. I don't want to be thrown out Hipster Monthly. :)

Jessica great review(s) RA.

message 5: by Jessica (new) - added it

Jessica Do you guys remember when John McCain, in a cynical and pathetic scramble for desperately needed votes, tried to co-opt Obama's message of hope and change while simultaneously trying to disparage it? Ultimately, I don't think it worked, though it might've gotten him a bit of attention. Still, ya gotta be slightly awed by his shameless, naked lust for approval, right?

God, I'm glad that election's over. I did learn a few things, though, such as: "Ya can't put lipstick on a pig!"

message 6: by RandomAnthony (last edited Jan 15, 2009 02:57PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

RandomAnthony Yeah...I think McCain got a vice presidental candidate to fight his battles (if ever a battle existed, because I still don't know what the hell is going on, I'm just having fun) for him, too! You betcha, Sar...I mean, Jessica! You're his pit bull in...white facepaint, apparently.

(You made that too easy. I feel cheap.)

Hey, take all the shots you want. This actually is kind of Waiting for the Barbarianesque, as far as I'm concerned...the Empire won't tell me what's going on:) I feel like there's this weird subtext I don't understand here, and it's confusing as hell. All I did was put a silly status update up, then a silly review, and I got attacked. Twice now. Clearly I hit a nerve, and as I've said before in private, I apologize. This is pretty funny, not to be taken seriously, unless I've hurt someone's feelings. If I did so I will say, again, that I feel bad and did not mean to do so. If someone can come up with someone concrete I did or said to offend, I'll do my best to explain and, like I said, apologize. I don't come here to do harm.

Mike                                              Good reviews. I can't comment on the Samoan angle, but re the history stuff, you noted that your "gut tells me that Coetzee wanted to transcend South African, and even governmental, overtones and delve deeper into the darkest parts of human nature."

Hm. I think you're spot-on that he doesn't want a simple mapping of (real) history on to his allegorical one. The Magistrate is in general such an ineffective interpreter of writing, other cultures, hell even his own--it seems like a big flashing neon cue to question any of our attempts to unwrap the trappings of fiction and discover what the book really means.

But Coetzee's also enormously skeptical of myth, of allegory, of universality--all neat rationalizations of self-interest and power. Stories of human nature--even the dark explorations--seem like mechanisms of justification. Even the magistrate's pity and desire to "help" is not separable from the government's desire to control, what Coetzee calls in another book "our tragic reach for transcendence" in the colonial enterprise. Worse, we tend to "r[u:]n out of pity" somewhere along the way, and the knives and cluster-bombs come out.

I'm rambling, sorry. I think my gut feeling is that JMC wants his mythic history to distance us from the limitations of our own worldviews, but the rigorous specificity of the torture scenes, and of Coetzee's prose throughout, also resist our desire to escape historical truths. In other words, to write in a way that isn't too neatly subsumed into (often erroneous, even dangerous) narratives about reality but neither is it glossed in comfortable, comforting, cathartic abstractions about human nature. (My reading is NOT a slam on yours, RA--I'm just trying to engage with your smart points.)

message 8: by RandomAnthony (last edited Jan 15, 2009 07:58AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

RandomAnthony I didn't hear that as a slam at all, sir. I don't know much about the man, Mike, but I appreciate the comments...what you're saying definitely makes sense. I'm definitely going to check more of his work and maybe read some commentary. Thank god the book is short...I feel like I want to read it a few times to get a handle on it. Thanks again.

message 9: by [deleted user] (new)

Glad you didn't phone this one in, RA. You put a lot of effort into this review, rose from your lotus stance and threw some real tight karate chops. Not sure I could call it a good review though, it is kind of leaden. Maybe because you were trying to ape somebody else's style.

What is up with the two reviews? That is like trumpeting hope and change and at the same time attacking it. Two reviews? Is that like having your cake and eating it too? A bird in the bushel and a bird in the hand? Like being a compassionate conservative? Like being passive-aggressive? Attacking while pretending not to attack. Very Zen.

message 10: by RandomAnthony (last edited Jan 15, 2009 08:55AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

RandomAnthony Carry on, sir. Consider the first review a parody of what I thought you were saying I was doing with the "hipster, self-referential" comment in the update status. I was making fun of myself, man. We could go back and forth all day long, but I repeat, again, I feel like we're on different planets, screaming across to each other, because meaning and intention are being misinterpreted in the (solar) wind.

When I've been in these fights before, when they're over, I always say "I wish I would have handled that better." I'm going to try to handle this one better before it gets to that point. I wish you well, sir. I've enjoyed our many conversations over the past year, I'm truly confused by these attacks, and I wish you the best. Take care.

In the immortal words of Black Flag, I'm going to try to "Rise Above" in what I would otherwise engage. Life's too short.

message 11: by Manny (new)

Manny Best dissertation story I've heard in ages! Thanks for sharing :)

message 12: by Kevin (new)

Kevin i think i like you even more after reading this review. i am looking for something new and different to read and while i am not convinced this is the book for me, i found your review to be excellent reading

message 13: by Ravi (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ravi Jain first review is better ..great story ...

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