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38 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An extraordinary analysis of the human psyche
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...
Published on 13 Jun 2001

versus
0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
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 13 months ago by Lucylu


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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 All tyrannies thrive on a diet of rumour, propaganda and lies, and eventually lose touch with reality and fall, 25 Feb 2008
By 
Trevor Coote "Trevor Coote" (Tahiti, French Polynesia) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Waiting For The Barbarians (Paperback)
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. It is true that there have been many regimes that have ruthlessly persecuted one section of the community, but what made South Africa unique was that the persecution was sanctioned by, and enshrined in, its national law. It was this that made the apartheid regime especially paranoid and nasty, and it cost them one of the world's finest writers. For Coetzee is that. There is nobody alive who can write in such taut, crystal clear, elegant English and yet exude such creative and emotional energy as this quiet, private intellectual. His books are so concise and so eloquent and so powerful that it is a mystery how he achieves the effect that he does. No wonder that the hypocritical apartheid regime was so scared of him. This and Disgrace are considered his finest works.
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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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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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4.0 out of 5 stars Welcoming the Barbarians, 31 Dec 2009
By 
Pankaj Saxena "...the typist of Gwalior" (Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, India) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Waiting For The Barbarians (Paperback)
Waiting for the Barbarians is one of Coetzee's early works, bearing the characteristics of his early phases of literary evolution.

The hero is an employee of the Empire, a magistrate running a borderland settlement, fencing it from the natives, the barbarians. In the typical Coetzee style, the Empire symbolizes the colonial government of nineteenth century South Africa. The magistrate's feelings towards the natives take a dramatic turn when he falls for a native girl orphaned by the Empire. At first, his sympathies for the natives are mild but when he sees an interrogation of the natives by the Empire employees, things start to change. At last he turns against the Empire completely in a quixotic revolt against the racist injustice. He is imprisoned and persecuted by the Empire. The title is an irony over the racist situations. After the revolt of the hero, the Empire and its employees are called the barbarians.

The style of Coetzee improves dramatically in this work. We almost see the grace and ease of `Disgrace'. Waiting for the Barbarians is a pleasant though sad read. It flows smoothly. The use of present simple as narration makes it a little dreamlike. Though events and thoughts blend in but the reader can easily differentiate between thoughts and events.

Coetzee is still a fervent socialist and many dialogues in the novel hint at the Cold War situations.

It is a sympathetic narrative which touches one's heart, but it is clearly the imagination of a late-twentieth century white male with liberal commitments. The setting of the novel in early nineteenth century does not seem natural. While the colonialists were definitely cruel and racist, judging them according to the present standards seems a little harsh. As compared to a full-blooded support of the natives by a white man today, even a slight insubordination to the colonial authorities on the part of a nineteenth century colonialist employee was a far greater act of bravery. Nikita Khrushchev may remain a reviled Commie figure in the West, but if he had not given that famous secret speech of 1956, denouncing Stalin, then the path for many who later brought down the Communist regime would not have cleared. We have to see history in this evolutionary light. Waiting for the Barbarians is essentially a twentieth century novel with all the latest liberal inputs and we witness the grafting of a twentieth century intellect over a nineteenth century landscape.

Coetzee is still to disavow himself from the commitment to the political Left. This he would do in Life and Times of Michael K.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Moving and horrifying, 28 Jan 2004
By A Customer
This is strong meat, a book about man's inhumanity to other men, and how torture and brutality can destroy the soul. Also uplifting in a bizarre defiant way. The themes are strong and forceful, the writing precise and elegant, the storyline utterly compelling. The protagonist spirals down into a hellish existence without really understanding his own motivations, and we can only watch and be shocked. This book really has the power to disturb. I would recommened it as highly as any of Coetzee's other great novels.
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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
This review is from: Waiting For The Barbarians (Paperback)
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. This relationship, which is borderline invasive and creepy, helps to expiate the personal guilt that the magistrate feels for averting his attention during Joll's first gruesome acts. But Coetzee evokes a queasy feeling around this relationship that is not unlike the queasiness in DISGRACE, when Professor David Lurie seduces an overmatched student.

This is a great novel that explores acts of brutality, courage, and conscience with amazing and eloquent precision. "There is no consoling grandeur in any of this," laments the magistrate. Highly recommended.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Deceptively Brief but with universal themes, 19 Oct 2014
This review is from: Waiting For The Barbarians (Paperback)
Tyranny thrives on the inactivity of the just, but the nature of tyranny is that the full weight of the state can be brought upon those who act against it.

Coetzee's novel is deceptively brief, for all its brevity he manages to fill the book with meaning and insight. A particular value to the novel is the universality of its themes, the book could have been set an any point in history, and in any place, rather than a veldt like frontier zone it could easily have been a customs post on the Wall of Hadrian.

The conflict theory of us and them is a common theme of literature but I think that Coetzee has given this a new and valuable insight in this novel. I can recommend it to you all.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Is there a better man of letters in the World?, 4 Dec 2007
The more I read of Coetzee the more I appreciate his work. This book is a slim volume, but contains so much. The narrative reflects the dicotomy of one mans life. The main character, a Magistrate in an outpost town, is a flawed human, trying to do the right thing as often as he can. As with so much of Coetzees work this novel reaches out and asks much of the reader, it will bring things to the surface, make you consider yourself and your actions. We are all the Magistrate of the novel in one way or another.
The style of the novel is so sparse and yet incredibly dense, this is not a book you will read quickly, it needs your full attention, to absorb the cahracters and their motives. While I read it I kept comparing it to the current state of our World and the indiviuals place in it. I'm certain this was Coetzees aim and he affects it brilliantly.
You will not do better then JM Coetzee.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Just Who are the Barbarians?, 9 Feb 2009
By 
Herman Norford "Keen Reader" (Birmingham, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Waiting For The Barbarians (Paperback)
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. But is it the curiosity aroused by the title of the novel or the fact that the author is well decorated with literary awards - including the top literary prize, the Nobel that attracts the reader to the novel? Whatever attracts the reader he or she will encounter an intriguing novel.

Waiting for the Barbarians is set in an unnamed country. However, it soon becomes clear that the imaginary country is not an independent state. On the contrary it is a state bound in the shackles of an empire. The narrator, a magistrate, has been plodding along for a number of years carrying out the work of the empire until he is jolted to the reality of uprising by the so called barbarians. The magistrate soon becomes exposed to a world in which there are some very unpleasant people such as colonel Jol. But the Magistrate himself does not rise above this murky world as his behaviour and moral rectitude becomes questionable.

This is a powerful story of corruption, torture, brutality and the relationship between the colonized and the colonizers. There were moments when I could not fail to be moved and be disturbed. Having acknowledged that I must say that I was not fully engaged by Coetzee's style. For the subject matter of the novel the style was too deadpan and matter of fact for my taste.

In parts, Waiting for the Barbarians reads more like a journal than a novel with a distinct plot. This not necessarily a flaw in the novel but it had two adverse effects upon me. One, it slowed down the pace and got a little tedious as page after page nothing of significance happens. Secondly, as the story turns on issues of morality, I soon realised that as it is presented solely through the eyes of the narrator I could not rely on him in terms of whether or not he was telling the truth and as I read I had a strong sense of moral ambivalence at least towards the narrator.

There are some revealing moments that rest on our precarious moral status as individuals. Our magistrate narrator wants us to know that: "Where civilization entailed the corruption of barbarian virtues and the creation of a dependent people, I decided, I was opposed to civilization; and upon this resolution I based the conduct of my administration." But his conscience forces him to acknowledge that he cannot claim the moral high ground. In the same breath he tells us: "I say this who now keep a barbarian girl for my bed."

Coetzee's novel depicts a bleak world view but nonetheless it is realistic and still relevant today. It's a world in which Empire must have its way at any cost. Respect for human well being and dignity no longer exists. The Empire pursuit of its aims at any cost is none more telling than when the narrator himself eventually succumbs to the brutality of incarceration and depravation. And for what reason? Simply for liaising with the indigenous people - the so called barbarians.

The novel dwells on the politics of colonialism. There is a masking of the truth and the creation of shaping of a political milieu where those with power sway the masses as they see fit. There is also the trampling under foot of basic issues such as fairness and justice.
One of the things that Coetzee does very well is that he manages to convey and maintain a menacing aura through out the novel. One goes through the anguish and suffering of the tortured and realises the futility of and depravity of the torturer.

What this novel also convey very well is the machinery of a political system, one of empire, put in place to create a myth about the barbarism of indigenous people. We are told: "One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation." In reality however all the so called barbarian wants to do is: "graze their sheep" and leave the colonialist alone.

Waiting for Barbarian is a novel that has something of importance to tell us. However, it did not fully engage me as I thought it would. Nonetheless, I am sure that there are many who would warm to its style as well as its content.
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Waiting For The Barbarians
Waiting For The Barbarians by J M Coetzee (Paperback - 2 Sep 2004)
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