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on 22 January 2017
The story is narrated by the unnamed magistrate of a small colonial town that exists as the territorial frontier of ‘the Empire’ yet recognizable as a 'universalized'’ version of South Africa. The Magistrate’s peaceful existence comes to an end with the Empire’s declaration of a state of emergency and the Third Bureau, a police force are sent due to rumours that the area's indigenous people, called ‘barbarians’ by the colonists, are preparing to attack the town. It is a disturbing story of empire, imperialism, slavery, torture and colonialism. The Third Bureau arrive but there are no barbarians there so they venture out into the wildness where they are convinced the barbarians must be gathered waiting to attack but there are no army of barbarians waiting for them. This is a common theme throughout the story, that the actual spectre of the barbarians, the Other being at the gates about to invade, is more powerful than the reality, because people like Empire need a scapegoat, someone to blame when things go wrong, someone to vent their anger and rage at. It would seem blame is a mirror in which you see every face but your own.
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on 14 February 2000
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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on 13 June 2001
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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on 5 November 2015
Poetic prose at its most powerful. 'We are the great miracle of creation!' screams The Magistrate in a desperate attempt to discourage The Colonel's men from smashing the skulls of the captive Barbarians with hammers. But beware of what you ask of your reader. Coetzee's novel asks questions; who should make the laws, are there occasions when they can be broken, where does cruelty come from, why does mankind have a compulsion to humiliate his neighbour, how do we deal with our sexuality, is old age as terrifying as we think it is? And just as satire has been proven not to change the behaviour of those who are satirized why should this novel make any difference to Man? Though the questions could not be more beautifully posed they are too monumental for each of us to even begin to engage with, and the feelings they produce in the reader are anger, guilt, frustration, and depression. In a hundred years time there will still be novels like this asking exactly the same questions.
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on 25 February 2008
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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on 4 December 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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on 5 April 2012
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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on 21 October 2001
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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on 17 October 2011
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. We are in an outpost of the Empire, a white colonial empire that has encroaches on the lands of the natives pushing them north and establishing agricultural outposts along the advancing border. The allusion to South Africa is obvious.

The state of emergency has been declared because the natives, systematically called the Barbarians, though there is another group that is not hostile, the fishermen, have decided to strike back. But their tactics is a lot more subtle than that of the special forces and military forces used to chase them. Let the soldiers run after us. We know the ground, they don't and they will be easily lost in some desert because of their insatiable pride.

Yet the story is told from the point of view of the civilian imperial administrator that is pushed aside by the special forces and military forces. He is the one who survives what we know will happen: the routing of the imperial forces, and he will assume the resistance of what will be left of the city during the winter, waiting for the Barbarians to arrive in the spring and some agreement will have to be found.

But the novel is not at all interesting at that level only. It shows how brutal and absurd the imperial forces can be, like all colonial forces, and you will have your lot of torturing, hasty killing, mass graves and so on. The interest is not even in the crass and gross ignorance and condescendence if not blind hatred of these imperial forces as concerning the natives, fishermen or barbarians alike.

The interest is in the slow realization by the civilian administrator, in fact some kind of magistrate, that there is no hope for the Empire itself because the imperial policy leads people to becoming barbarians themselves, all of them or nearly. They can torture their own and impose all kinds of looting, or barbaric violence onto the community they are supposed to protect because they are beyond the state of law or the rule of law and are only governed by fear, urgency and hatred.

And the truth will come bluntly at the end: "The crime that is latent in us we must inflict on ourselves." And then the small novel becomes universal. We can all be or become these monsters as soon as the conditions are ripe and those who will seize power in this situation will inflict violence and suffering to all members of the community that oppose or disapprove the move, and even eventually and irremediably to themselves who will have to be sacrificed on the altar of normality sooner or later, because the time of the cosmos, of the seasons, of the vast universe will take over the fake time of the human empire that created its own time scale to be able to dominate people, more than nature actually.

There might even be a small dream of going back to natural cosmic time which would mean dropping all human civilization and going back to hunting, fishing and gathering. But that is a feeling we have when reading some pages. The magistrate dreams of it, obviously. Does the author? Or is it a prediction of the final apocalyptic fate of humanity?

We can even think Koetzee is speaking of modern society where some seize power and then infringe on the rights, freedom and plain simple existence of others in order to impose what they consider their rightful domination.

It is a very pessimistic novel because, like in Waiting for Godot these people are waiting for an invisible enemy or whatever, not quite invisible, rather a big herd from which they capture some members from time to time, at least till the moment the herd decides to be slightly more defensive if not aggressive since the best defence against injustice is offensive.

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on 19 April 2016
I will not claim to understand all that the Coetzee is trying to say in this novel, but I think he is examining the nature of civilisation, the complexities of the human condition which lead to violence and how little we understand one another - or even try to. Did the Barbarians really exist or were they just simple people living outside the compound who became the focus for all that is ugly in man?

There are few better writers than Coetzee. His ability to write a great literary novel which also examines such huge themes is remarkable.
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