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Waiting for the Barbarians [Paperback]

J. M. Coetzee
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)

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Book Description

12 May 1997
For decades the Magistrate has run the affairs of a tiny frontier settlement, ignoring the impending war between the barbarians and the Empire. When the interrogation experts arrive he is jolted into sympathy with the victims and an act of rebellion which lands him in prison.

Product details

  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; New edition edition (12 May 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 074939420X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0749394202
  • Product Dimensions: 19.9 x 13.2 x 1.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 862,056 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

J.M. Coetzee's work includes Waiting For the Barbarians, Life & Times of Michael K, Boyhood, Youth, Disgrace and Diary of a Bad Year. He was the first author to win the Booker Prize twice and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.

Product Description


"I have known few authors who can evoke such a wilderness in the heart of man. He is an artist of a weight and depth that put him beyond ordinary comparisons...Coetzee knows the elusive terror of Kafka." -- "Sunday Times"

Book Description

'A remarkable and original book' Graham Greene --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
38 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An extraordinary analysis of the human psyche 13 Jun 2001
By A Customer
For me, this is the best of Coetzee's books. Rarely has this form of human loneliness been expressed with the same poetic and tragic ease. The desert in the story seems to grow and grow unrelentingly, stopping not even to allow the captain space to breathe. And behind the soft exposition of the plight of the isolated town in the story is pin-sharp writing; not a word has been wasted. By his very economy with words, Coetzee takes us to the edge of the abyss and we only realise it when staring hard into it. A remarkable book, and nothing less than a masterpiece.
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Allegorical exploration of oppression 14 Feb 2000
By A Customer
I enjoyed this softly written, almost poetic book. It is an allegorical tale, exploring oppression, guilt and personal morality, and set in a strange and timeless place 'on the edge of the Empire:' The story of a gentle man whose motives are always mixed, but who in the end is the prime force for decency and humanity in the enclosed world he inhabits. Well written in a simple and earthy style that still allows the author to handle the broad themes of guilt and redemption. Coetzee creates a real sense of life on the edge of a literal and metaphysical desert, and by the end of the book, there is no doubt just who the Barbarians are.
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
J M Coetzee's 1980 allegorical gem is heavily influenced by Dino Buzzati's Tartar Steppe, perhaps the most existentially melancholic novel of the twentieth century. Both are set in remote outposts in vast empty wildernesses where man and his constructions are literally just dots on the horizon. In each book there is an enemy, undefined except by rumour and by name: the northerners in Buzzati, the barbarians in Coetzee (though he does once refer to them as northerners, thus signifying his debt to Buzzati). However, the other worldliness of the Tartar Steppe is given a definite point of reference in Waiting for the Barbarians; that of a repressive imperial state resembling in theme, if not environment, Vorster's apartheid South Africa.
The narrator is a lonely magistrate in a frontier town who, though far from the centre of the oppressive state security apparatus, is complicit in its existence by administering its laws (and abusing his position by frequent sexual dalliances with vulnerable women). It doesn't take participation, just indifference, a blind eye. Although always uneasy about his role in the system, he continues as benignly as possible in order to lead a quiet life. It is only on the arrival of a group of interrogators, and having witnessed their arbitrary and brutal methods, that he instinctively rebels. At one point a girl is invited to pick up a rod and beat a prisoner in the yard. `You are depraving these people!' he shouts. He is thus branded an enemy of the state and a `barbarian lover' and committed to prison and subjected to a regime of humiliation and degradation. The breathless tension that follows is extraordinary at times.
All tyrannies survive on a diet of rumour, propaganda and lies, and eventually lose touch with reality and fall.
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36 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ruthless 21 Oct 2001
By A Customer
This book is, or should be, the envy of every author. Spare, tight, simple, pure, beatuiful and horrifying.
Coetzee is the greatest master of transporting the reader into the terrifying empty spaces within himself and laying them out vivisected and exposed.
If you fear to know yourself, never read him. John Coetzee reveals truths that perhaps no one should want to know, but every soul contains. A fearless writer, a ruthless analyst, and probably one of the greatest living men of thought.
Coetzee is, quite simply, the greatest living author, and possibly they best since Dostoevsky.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Acts of Conscience in a Police State 23 Jun 2012
The magistrate, the narrator of WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS, wants no more than "...a quiet life in quiet times." Then, Colonel Joll, a policeman from the Third Bureau of the Civil Guard, appears in the magistrate's live-and-let-live town. Joll holds paranoid concerns about nomadic barbarians who, he says, threaten the peace of the Empire. Using emergency powers, Joll begins to arrest and torture ordinary people near the town, using their confessions to verify the barbarian threat. Then Joll and his team leave for the remote capital and the magistrate, who as a jurist sees shame in unjust suffering, tries, in his peculiar way, to right the trauma wrought by Joll and his abominable acts. In doing so, the magistrate becomes an enemy of Joll and his paranoia. His reaction is: "I have set myself in opposition, the bond is broken, I am a free man... what a dangerous joy!"

WftB is a terrific novel, albeit harrowing and slightly creepy. The novel is harrowing due to its amazing imagining of torture, which ranges from waterboarding, a mock hanging, and delicate ministrations with a heated fork to degradation, humiliation, and boredom. Torture, which is the dominating presence in this book, appalls but fascinates the magistrate, who learns that he, himself, is not impossibly far from the strange intimacy in some of the torturer's acts. Nonetheless, the magistrate never loses his moral compass, as do most of his neighbors. At one point, he even dares ask the man who has tortured him how, after a day on the job "... it would be possible to return to everyday life--to sit down at table, for instance, and break bread with one's family or one's comrades?"

Meanwhile, the magistrate, a sexually active older man, also develops a sexual relationship with a young woman that Joll has tortured.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars One of Coetzee's best
An excellent read for anyone who takes philosophic interest in society. It allows one to consider the forces which impact when fear takes hold of group of people and the eroding... Read more
Published 6 months ago by maverick
2.0 out of 5 stars Yawn
Call me a heathen. It I just got. Ores with this book and the main character so didn't finish it. Enough said really.
Published 7 months ago by Lucy McDowell
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best novels I have ever read
Waiting for the Barbarians is one of the most intricately crafted novels I have ever read. J. M. Coetzee's writing is, as ever, impressively precise and analytical, and the... Read more
Published 24 months ago by Toby Campbell
5.0 out of 5 stars Imagining the barbarian other
This book is a complete masterpiece, for the strong first person narrative alone I would recommend it, the pace and style of writing are totally absorbing and engaging while the... Read more
Published on 5 April 2012 by Lark
5.0 out of 5 stars A very strange trip to the other side of humanity
This small novel reads slowly and yet is not getting lost in some marshy writing. The point is we do not see at first where it is going. Read more
Published on 17 Oct 2011 by Jacques COULARDEAU
5.0 out of 5 stars A study of civilisation
This is one of my all time best books. It's powerful, raw and thought-provoking. In many ways it's a critique of "civilisation", making us question the notion of justice and our... Read more
Published on 25 Oct 2010 by J. Downs
5.0 out of 5 stars subverting the language of colonialism
Coetzee's most direct apartheid era novel that attempts to subvert the textual dominance of the dialogue of 'Empire' through a postmodern use of allegory, or rather 'against... Read more
Published on 2 Aug 2010 by Mr. J. F. Cotterill
5.0 out of 5 stars Disturbing Story
I found this a disturbing book. It left me slightly depressed. In the same way that Harold Pinter's short play 'One for the Road' did. Read more
Published on 19 May 2010 by ruskin
4.0 out of 5 stars Welcoming the Barbarians
Waiting for the Barbarians is one of Coetzee's early works, bearing the characteristics of his early phases of literary evolution. Read more
Published on 31 Dec 2009 by Pankaj Saxena
4.0 out of 5 stars Just Who are the Barbarians?
As one embarks upon reading J M Coetzee's short novel, Waiting for the Barbarians one cannot help but wonder who will turn out to be the Barbarians. Read more
Published on 9 Feb 2009 by Herman Norford
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