Molly's Reviews > Waiting for the Barbarians

Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
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Oct 20, 14


After reading a section of a chapter for my dissertation, a friend loaned me Waiting for the Barbarians and told me that because it's early Coatzee it's totally different from his later work and isn't as polished and slick as later texts. She also suggested that after reading it, I might be able to tell her something about the scraps of writing that litter the book. I definitely couldn't deliver on that, but I really liked the book. Its spare story, cast in the model of Kafka's "The Penal Colony," anticipates The Life and Times of Michael K, a book Coatzee published three years after Waiting for the Barbarians. The novel's first-person narration, which belies its allegorical mode, offers an account of a Magistrate who for many years has served as a henchman of the Empire. As such, the Magistrate has lived in and presided over an outpost oasis, a colonizing frontier settlement that long ago established itself in Barbarian territory, monopolizing the country's few resources and representing the Empire's power. The narrative begins as the Magistrate faces the settlement's imminent transition from a protected enclave that periodically allows the barbarians to trade with (and usually be cheated by) the settlement's inhabitants to a military and prisoner barracks. The Empire believes that the nomadic barbarians are planning a war; accordingly, the Bureau sends a Colonel to instill fear into the barbarians and to ready the settlement for inevitable battle. The Magistrate, who sees the barbarians for what they are--a construction of the Empire's imagination and a chance for the Empire to prove its power to itself--is the lone man who sees through the Empire's terror and torture tactics. He therefore must face his own long complicity in the Empire's imperial plan, and he must position himself--as well as he can--as at least a weak stand against it. This book is raw and intense, and I highly recommend it.
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