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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

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0 of 1 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 4 months ago by Lucy McDowell


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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
This review is from: Waiting for the Barbarians (Paperback)
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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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Allegorical exploration of oppression, 14 Feb 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: Waiting for the Barbarians (Paperback)
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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23 of 24 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)   
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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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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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Moving and horrifying, 28 Jan 2004
By A Customer
This review is from: Waiting for the Barbarians (Paperback)
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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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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5.0 out of 5 stars One of Coetzee's best, 27 Dec 2013
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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 effects they have on the mind. It portrays the fear of the conventional person for the thought of losing the status quo to alien outside influences. In this it remains topical for all modern societies who fear the inrush of "immigration with its multiplicity of intrusive threats".
It is a book for someone who wants to remain thinking about the subject once they have finished reading.
All Coetzee's books are extremely well crafted so a pleasure to read.
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5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best novels I have ever read, 11 July 2012
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 allegory of sorts that he offers is intriguing. This is, at one level, a novel about the interactions and power relations between different people. At another, however, it tells a story about messages and the impossibility of fixed meanings. This may sound excessively intellectual. In actual fact, the accessibility of Waiting for the Barbarians is what makes it such a fascinating read.
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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. 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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5.0 out of 5 stars Imagining the barbarian other, 5 April 2012
By 
Lark (North Coast of Ireland) - See all my reviews
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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 narrative has a certain timeless quality to it. The magistrate of the imperial outpost is in a real sense everyman, the imperial outpost itself every settlement or village community and the story is vague enough in detail to leave you wondering if it is taking place in the distant future or the distant past. For those reasons alone, not to mention just how enjoyable a read this proved to be, I could recommend this book. However, there are other reasons I can think of also.

It is true that the book does feature a kind of protracted meditation upon complicity in oppression, the magistrate is impotent to prevent or challenge petty cruelties let alone what the central authority's bureau can cook up in the pursuit of their imagined threats to the empire. The bureau first arrives, disturbing the peace of the frontier, on a kind of fact finding mission, whose aftermath leaves in its wake a victim, or survivor, with whom the magistrate interacts, beginning the story proper, the second appearence of the bureau heralds developments which will bring the story towards its conclusion. At first the bureau is confirming a threat and finally seeking to decisively remove it. The conceit and cruelty of ranking officialdom is portrayed in contrast with the humane, embattled, some what befuddled even, magistrate whose preoccupations and concerns are personal and seemingly trivial. While seemingly conflicted in his choices, very possibly investing some of them, such as a hobby excavating ruins or dreams about the bureau's victims, with greater than warranted significance, the magistrate's motif is decency.

This, for me, was not the crowning achievement of the novel though. What the author manages to do is to create a truly alien 'other', or counterpart to the known, in the minds of his characters and narrator. That is, the barbarian 'other' is portrayed from the imaginings of the narrator and those like himself that are part of the Empire. These characters perfectly fail to properly understand the 'other', which remains alien to them throughout. While the magistrate's expectations prove less wide of the mark to those of the Empire's bureau men it is clear that he does share their thinking. He differs only in believing that the barbarians while not a threat presently will prove a threat eventually, if only in retaliation to the Bureau's offensive.

It did not fail to register with me that this was not an accurate picture of the barbarian others as they were actually known, nomads, uninterested in the Empire's frontier and taking nothing to do with it. Rather this was a mirror image of the Empire itself. Those awaiting a barbarian invasion, either immanent or eventually, were only projecting upon the 'other' what the Empire was itself engaged in all along. It is the Empire which is encroaching upon the nomads lands, it is the Empire which captures, tortures and kills, it is the Empire which to all intents and purposes is behaving in the most uncivilised and barbaric ways.

That is what made this such a great book for me, I can honestly say that I've not enjoyed reading a book as much since discovering Orwell's social realist style of journalism and first person accounts some ten plus years ago. A very thought provoking book, which even if you dont appreciate it for the same reasons as myself you are bound to find interesting for its sympathetic character development or closely observed social realism. I'm only sorry that I finished it so soon.
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Waiting for the Barbarians
Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee (Paperback - 12 May 1997)
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