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Waiting for the Barbarians
by J. M. Coetzee


Paperback - 160 pages (October 1999)
Penguin USA (Paper); ISBN: 0140283358

Powerful yet Simple!, October 14, 2000
Reviewer: Katherine Neis from Harrisburg, PA
This is the third book I have read by Coetzee and each time I venture into his world, I am surprised at how he is able to represent complicated themes in so simple a story. In this novel, a magistrate rules his town peacefully until Colonal Joll comes and insists that the barbarians are a dangerous group that need to be quelled immediately. He is a wicked man who takes his weakness and manipulates it into cruelty towards others. Slowly, the town becomes equally obsessed with the "enemy" and the need to restore the peace which ironically was theirs for the taking before Joll arrived. Through a series of events, the magistrate is believed to have comitted treason and so undergoes direct persecution from Joll and his men. He is ripped from his place of office, thrown in jail and treated like an animal for almost a full year. It seems to him he is the only one fighting for justice and, more importantly, the only one standing up to Joll's cruelty. Strangely enough, Coetzee only assigns an actual name to Joll. The magistrate is simply "the magistrate," his lover, "the girl," etc.,etc. Other themes I have observed about Coetzee are his protagonists are often in a state of disgrace (the actual title to his most recent work) somewhere or somehow which, in turn, create the conflict of each story. Also, each protagonist is an infidel in one way or another. Married or single, he is free to answer whatever his sexuality requests of him. I have only read three of his books, so these trends may certainly not be consistent throughout all his writing. I just found the trend interesting. At any rate, Waiting for the Barbarians is captivating in its telling and gripping in it's underlying moral. I would highly recommend it be part of your must-read repetoir if it is not already.

articles and reviews


April 18, 1982 BY IRVING HOWE

A GREAT commanding subject haunts the South African imagination, yet this subject can also turn into a kind of tyranny, close, oppressive, even destructive. Imagine what it must be like to live as a serious writer in South Africa: an endless clamor of news about racial injustice, the feeling that one's life is mortgaged to a society gone rotten with hatred, an indignation that exhausts itself into depression, the fear that one's anger may overwhelm and destroy one's fiction. And except for silence or emigration, there can be no relief.

About all these matters J.M. Coetzee, a South African writer in his early forties, has evidently thought deeply. His earlier novel ''In the Heart of the Country'' was a study of social and sexual entanglements between whites and blacks that showed patches of high talent but finally broke down under the weight of emotionally overwrought Faulknerian prose. But in his new novel, ''Waiting for the Barbarians,'' Mr. Coetzee has found a narrative strategy for controlling the tension between subject and author. [read more]


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