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Waiting for the Barbarians

3.94  ·  Rating details ·  27,456 ratings  ·  2,065 reviews
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 bran ...more
Paperback, 152 pages
Published October 1st 1999 by Penguin Books (first published December 1980)
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Vit Babenco
Apr 12, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Waiting for the Barbarians is brief but it is like a candle lit at both ends - burning bright and chasing the dark away. The history of civilization is inside.
Where civilization entailed the corruption of barbarian virtues and the creation of dependent people, I decided, I was opposed to civilization.

As a child loses its innocence growing up so civilization deprives human beings of their innate naturalness.
It is impossible to read this and not be reminded of an almost genetically programmed inferiority complex, the burden of history only the descendants of the colonized have to bear. Despite those smug pronouncements of the 21st century being an era of a fair and equitable world and the hard battles won in favor of interracial harmony, there's the fact of your friend barely suppressing a squawk of alarm when you express your admiration for Idris Elba - no female I am acquainted with in real life h ...more
Ahmad Sharabiani
(287 From 1001 Books) - Waiting For The Barbarians, J.M. Coetzee

Waiting for the Barbarians is a novel by the South African-born Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee. First published in 1980.

The story is narrated in the first person by the unnamed magistrate of a small colonial town that exists as the territorial frontier of "the Empire".

The Magistrate's rather peaceful existence comes to an end with the Empire's declaration of a state of emergency and with the deployment of the Third Bureau—special fo
Who is the real barbarian, the colonizer or the less developed colonized? I guess this was the main theme of the book for me.

Waiting for the Barbarian is a very powerful book but I enjoyed Disgrace by the same author more .

I observed that there are a few common themes in both books such as:

- the "disgrace of getting old". Both main characters are past their youth and are horrified by the way their body is getting older
- violence and rape
- a father witnesses atrocities being done to their daught
Jun 20, 2011 rated it it was amazing
"They do not care that once the ground is cleared the wind begins to eat at the soil and the desert advances. Thus the expeditionary force against the barbarians prepared for its campaign, ravaging the earth, wasting our patrimony."

Is this--my 5th one read--THE quintessential Coetzee? (I may or not be nodding my head.)

Earlier than "Life & Times of Micheal K.", it is here that we see the true beginnings of Coetzee's motifs, as well as the accomplished writer's poetics. A man whose fortune is reve
After the shock of the recent Paris attacks I don’t know precisely why it made me recall Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians that I read a few years ago. Yesterday it was a terrorist attack and perhaps no direct result of imperialism, but maybe the fears that the recent events provoked in me are somewhat akin to those suffered in this tiny frontier settlement with the arrival of interrogation experts. Today we don’t know how to defend ourselves against such tragedy, how can we escape or where ...more
Pain is truth?

Maybe, according to the obscure man in power who thinks people lie until they are broken by torture. However, the truth he gets is not factual truth, but rather psychological nakedness. And it is not the pain, but the fear that guides the narrative. Fear of pain, fear of change, fear of the Barbarians.

Each dictatorship built on injustice needs Barbarians for protection. Or fear of barbarians, to be more precise. As long as they lurk in the desert, brutal laws seem to make sense.

Jan 10, 2009 rated it really liked it
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 himsel
Jul 04, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2011, aere-perennius
A novel as thin and tight and sharp as razor wire. WFTB was an allegorical nightmare filled with both moral clarity and an intense and heavy sadness. It is interesting to read this at the same time as The Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire. It also reminds me again and again of Mayer's fantastic book The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals. How can Coetzee have written so clearly in 1980 about our modern culture of torture, Empire, degradatio ...more
ἀρχαῖος (arkhaîos) withdrawn
Coetzee has written a great little novel for us all. You should read it.

A novel to be read by every generation. An allegory of every empire (including those past, those current and those to come). Empires need enemies in order to maintain control. Hence the 'infidels, savages, Jews, Muslims, barbarians and terrorists' that we civilized empires constantly hold up as threats to our very existence.

And how do empires respond to real or imagined barbarians? By behaving like barbarians, by becoming
Steven Godin
Oct 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Waiting for the Barbarians, my first novel by the 2003 recipient Nobel Prize in Literature, was a distinguished piece of fiction, one of urgency and profundity, written with a lingering Faulkneresque prose. The story of an imaginary Empire, set in an unspecified place and time, yet recognizable as a version of his country of birth, South Africa, allows Coetzee some esthetic distance from his subject, for even while remaining locked with the history of his moment, he isn't completely at the mercy ...more
Aug 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Incisive and gripping, told in prose that reads to me like a cold clear stream: always moving, with occasional surprising depths of insight. I found to be especially profound his insights into empire and its dissolutions, which seem quite relevant today (in America). I won't rehash the plot, but suffice it to say that I loved the almost fairy-tale aspect of it--the setting that was nowhere and everywhere, no time and yet somehow timeless. A real work of art. ...more
May 07, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Ummm, so apparently this has been made into a film, to be released later this year? Hmmm. Not what I was expecting to pop up while watching a Youtube clip from All This, and Heaven Too. Of course it would star Johnny Depp, probably only because he wanted to wear those sunglasses. I did like Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse so that's fine, I guess. How am I supposed to feel about this and why am I only discovering this now? I just don't quite see--how--why. JM Coetzee is the last author on eart ...more
May 23, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: africa
Coetzee writes for academics. He writes to teach lessons, to have his themes discussed and perhaps to be chuckled at. I find his books rather deliberate, hardened and inevitable. Now, he’s a fine writer, can turn a passable phrase and get conceptual without becoming a total bore; but, he has a tendency to interpret his books for you and the mannerisms and hobbies of the characters in “Waiting for the Barbarians” slot them too neatly into representative categories, which makes this more of an all ...more
In Waiting for the Barbarians, Coetzee has written a powerful, multilayered allegory. Its central theme deals with the implications of imperialism, but this examination creates a much wider array of harmonic overtones, which concern human nature in a broader sense. It illustrates the thinness of civilisation, its vulnerability, the eternal fear (and strangely corrupting attraction) of the seeming inevitability of its fall and rebirth, borne out time again by the cycles of history.

On a more pers
Jan 03, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"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 t
4.5 Stars.

A very complex, intricate book written by the masterful J.M. Coetzee.

We are in a nameless country, in an unknown time with a nameless narrator (the Magistrate) who is our eyes into this world that is about to be completely upended by the arrival of Commandant Joll, from the Empire headquarters.

There are rumours that their is unrest among the Barbarians (nomads living at the outskirts of the Empire) and that they are planning an attack.
The Commandant believes in torturing his victims.
Nov 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
Written in 1980, Coetzee's meditation on the power of the state, and how it uses fear of the other to maintain power, is a reflection of his experience of apartheid government in his native South Africa, but it is also a timeless story. It is set in a fictional Empire at an outpost where the Barbarians are nearby, but are rarely seen; this could be the 19th Century American West, or similar periods in Mexico, or the steppes of Russia. My personal candidate location is the area around the Caspian ...more
Michael Perkins
Jun 26, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“I feel old and tired, I want to sleep. I sleep whenever I can nowadays and, when I wake up, wake reluctantly. Sleep is no longer a healing bath, a recuperation of vital forces, but an oblivion, a nightly brush with annihilation.”


"Waiting for the Barbarians" is a dark tale of xenophobia. At the edges of the author’s imagined Empire live nomads, commonly referred to as barbarians. The center of the action in this story is a remote outpost where an elderly Magistrate, un
Sep 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: modern-lit
"I should never have allowed the gates of the town to be opened to people who assert that there are higher considerations than those of decency."

Perhaps an epitaph for our world. If you like your Kafka with a large dose of morality in it, step this way. I wonder if there has ever been a period in human history in which this little work would not have its place however particularly apt it may seem right now.

This is the third Coetzee I've read now and all of them are economic in terms of paper spe
D. Pow
Jun 10, 2009 rated it it was amazing
J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians is a stark, allegorical tale that is haunting, strange and filled with impending menace from page one. It is the tale of The Magistrate, a mid-level bureaucrat who presides over a small settlement on the edge of a pre-industrial Empire. The Empire is not named, the Barbarians are not specified, and though the particulars of the settings are echoed by historical counterparts, Coetzee leaves out enough details to make the place timeless, universal, fabulis ...more
Joy D
A Magistrate presides over a small frontier town at the edge of the desert, living in a peaceful coexistence with the indigenous population, until the arrival of Colonel Joll of the Third Bureau, the military arm of the ruling Empire. The Colonel and his troops have been sent to put down an uprising of Barbarians; however, no such uprising is actually occurring. Nevertheless, the troops follow orders by rounding up suspects and detaining them, while the Colonel “questions” them via torture. The ...more
What a powerful piece of prose! The main character is an anti-hero, a magistrate in an outpost of an Empire; he's been there for twenty years and has elapsed into a kind of routine. But then suddenly an army-kolonel turns up who wants to combat the barbarians at the other side of the frontier. The magistrate registers the sudden indications of torture and injustice, does not understand why simple nomads are declared enemies; his fascination focusses especially on a blind and cripple nomad-girl. ...more
Jun 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2020, library
A magistrate in a garrison on the frontier of an unnamed empire narrates this shortish novel (about 150p) and Coetzee packs so much in to think about. Isolation and loneliness. The treatment of native peoples, colonialism in general, what is justice. The narrator comes to wonder which side the barbarians are actually on. Skilfully written, the message is powerful.
I decided to read this after watching a trailer for a film based on this book the other day. I’ll be interested to see how well they d
Janie C.
Apr 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An unnamed empire exists at the edge of nowhere, fabricating itself with its own laws and truths, fearing the unknown threat of oncoming Barbarians. Sadness, loneliness and lack of true connections lie within the walls of the community. Sparse prisoners are brought before the masses to be tortured and slaughtered. Who are the Barbarians? They are us. It is our own disgrace and our future that we must learn to confront.
May 06, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
While writing this review the commemoration of the assassination attempt on Hitler is held in Berlin. On this day, 70 years ago, world's history could have taken a turn for the better, but unfortunately the assassination failed. The people involved were executed on that same evening. Needless to say this took place without a charge or trial. But today we remember not only the group of Graf von Stauffenberg, but all resisters and dissidents of the Nazi terror, be they individuals of culture, chur ...more
Nathan "N.R." Gaddis
Brutal. And its political triad--empire, frontier settlers, barbarians--maps all too discomfitingly onto our own present political situation.
Coetzee is a good writer, but this book was underwhelming. His point about the barbarians was obvious from the very beginning and the narrator was too wishy-washy to make any impression on me. This strikes me as the sort of literature that people like because it is so easy to understand while also being self-consciously literary, whereas I prefer writing that is more complex and less conventional.
Jul 13, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I’d be lying if I told you this was an overly exciting book, but nevertheless Coetzee paints a fascinating portrait of civilization with nothing but a small village for his setting. Here we see civilization in all its ridiculousness, tedium, decadence, and cruelty. Anyone who thinks that wars and acts of conquest are a noble or black and white affair should read this, and I would hope it changes their minds.
John_Dishwasher John_Dishwasher
Each of us is a fulcrum between the natural being we are born to be and the civilized being we are conditioned into. Coetzee has created an allegorical character who observes the conflicts that go on within us as we exist between these two tendencies. He paints our civilized side (which “protects'' us from our natural side) as unthinking, irrational and vicious; and our barbarian side (which we long to embrace even as we destroy it) as child-like, stoic, half-blind and “incomplete.” At various t ...more
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John Maxwell Coetzee is an author and academic from South Africa. He became an Australian citizen in 2006 after relocating there in 2002. A novelist and literary critic as well as a translator, Coetzee has won the Booker Prize twice and was awarded the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature.

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