4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on March 4, 2002
Coetzee is South Africa's most compelling writer. His prose is hard and precise and his stories crafted with a sharpness that cuts to the quick.
"Waiting for the Barbarians" is profound and powerful. Bleak and desolate at times, but sparkling often with rare luminosity.
The magistrate is a character that embodies a particular dillema during Apartheid, or any period of opression. What to do? What to risk? What is our moral responsibility? It's an uncomfortable question flung at a world often so enamored with comfort it refuses to act against injustice. Unless it suits them politically.
As a writer and South African, Coetzee remains for me a constant inspiration on how to address the troubled past. There is redemption and bleakness, despair and small joys.
Coetzee knows the complexities and doesn't stoop to easy answers. If truth be told he is the South African most worthy of the Nobel Prize.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 14, 2002
The book 'Waiting For The Barbarians' by J. M. Coetzee is an interesting book but I feel that it is a hard book to read. Coetzee portrays humanity at its worst, showing how innocent and good people can be corrupted and show ill will towards his or her brethren. It shows us how a person or a group of people that hold power can dictate what is considered to be right and wrong and how people can just follow the crowd and do what everyone else is doing so that they wouldn't have the chance to be ridiculed for what they believe in.
When Colonel Joll and his troops arrived they said that they were there in order to bring peace to the town, but this is ironic because there wasn't any problems there in the first place. Colonel Joll convinced the people that the 'Barbarians' were planning an attack on the town n that they were going to try to get their land back. Everyone followed them even though people knew for years that the 'Barbarians' were gentle, harmless people.
The only one who thought to stand up for his beliefs was the 'Magistrate'. He knew just like the rest of the town that the 'Barbarians' wasn't going to attack the town now and never attacked the 'Empire' before because that wasn't their style. The 'Magistrate' in this book undergoes embarrassment and torture for about a year for his belief that the 'Barbarians' were gentle people who wished for nothing more than peace, and that the 'Empire' were a bunch of heartless and ruthless people whose only concern was expanding and growing by any means possible.
Besides from this show of humanity at its worst it also raises questions. 'Is it worth it for one to stand up and fight for what one believes in?' and 'How hard will one work; or how much will one sacrifice for what one believes in?' When you read it you will ask yourself: 'Could you be like the 'Magistrate' and suffer a year of embarrassment and torture for your beliefs?' 'Could you give up three good meals an day and a nice warm bed to sleep in?' 'Could you go without contact with other people and not go crazy?' 'Could you do any of these thing and come out a survivor'
Even though it is a hard book to read, depending on how one interprets it one can learn more about one's self from this book and its powerful underlying meanings. It is compelling and riveting and will surely catch your attention and leave you wanting more every time you put the book down. This was my first Coetzee book that I read but I think I will be trying to read more of his writing in the future.
This was the first book by Coetzee that I have read. I was immediately impressed by his wonderful ability to immerse the reader in atmosphere of the story and the plight of its characters. We soon become acquainted with the Magistrate who narrates his story. He appears to be an unambitious, harmless official living from day to day enjoying the little privileges and pleasures of his position, but he nurtures an inner nobility of character. After the arrival of a high official of the Empire, he becomes caught in a vise of autocratic brutishness. Whereas he has formerly been a dispenser of benign justice to the people in a remote colonial outpost he becomes witness to the dispensing of inhuman treatment and torture. He attempts to assist and befriending those who have been victimized but this ultimately results in he becoming accused of traitorously collaborating with the enemy. He endures terrible suffering which the author presents with visceral exactitude.
Although the story takes place in an unnamed fictional colonial ‘Empire,’ peopled by the privileged invaders and by indigenous ‘barbarians,’ we can assume that Coetzee drew many of his concepts from historical and geographical South African, and South West African (Namibian), influences. The policy of Apartheid was at its pinnacle when the book was written. But, no matter where in the world fascist colonial dictatorships have ruled their modus operandi have relied on the use of oppressive force to control the masses; a counterfeit judicial system is empowered to enforce ‘the rule of law’ which is adapted to serve the autocratic hierarchy. Even so-called democracies have frequently been known to impose their will over others on the pretext of influencing outcomes to benefit the populace when the motive was overwhelmingly to assist their own interests.
Although the reader may not realize it, the author has written a very political novel. He directly or obliquely comments on the state of suppressive authority, racial prejudice, cultural ignorance and a despondent humanity. The book, written over twenty years before Coetzee received his deserved Nobel Prize in Literature, is expertly written and is still somberly thought-provoking and relevant over thirty years later.
on February 14, 2002
J. M. Coetzee's "Waiting for the Barbarians" is a novel different than most I have read because the reader does not know exactly where it takes place. It is understandable if people think the setting is in South Africa, because the manner in which the barbarians are treated is how Black people were treated during Apartheid. But the thing is, the reader not know if the barbarians are Black, White, Yellow or Red, and neither do we know the skin color of the people living in the Empire. You might finish the novel wondering exactly why this is so. Coetzee wants the readers to focus on something else other than when and where his story takes place.
There are very few names in this novel. The main character is simply known as the Magistrate. His duty is to supervise a piece of territory that belongs to the Empire. Throughout the story he seems to be miserable because of his old age. This behavior of his leads him to write notes on the Empire so that when he soon dies, he feels like he has at least put his life to some use by leaving behind a history for future generations to read.
From the beginning of the novel, readers are introduced to Colonel Joll, whose duty is to find barbarians and question them to find out the truth - if they raided farms or plundered houses. He accomplishes this by torture. To him, pain is truth.
When the Magistrate finds out what Colonel Joll does to the barbarians, he is astonished and cannot believe what he sees one day when he finds the body of an old man in one of the questioning rooms. Seeing the eyes gouged out, teeth broken in, and beard drenched with blood, the Magistrate is introduced to what exactly happens in the Empire. He is disgusted, and he gradually grows a hatred toward Colonel Joll, as well as the Empire.
When the Magistrate meets and is attracted to the half blind girl (one of the tortured barbarians left behind when her people left) who begs for money in the town, he takes her in, and his life is changed. He bathes her, sleeps with her, and takes care of her. It is from this woman that the Magistrate wonders why there is such hatred toward the barbarians. To him they are a reserved people who are trying to defend themselves and stay alive. He says that it is the Empire that has come on their land and taken it away from them. It is those in the Empire who are the real barbarians.
After spending many months with the girl, the Magistrate decides he should take her back to her people. He notifies the capital that he will embark on a journey to find the barbarians and restore goodwill. He does so, and after almost two weeks of surviving in the desert with its sand storms and rough weather, and having succeeded in giving back the girl to her people, the Magistrate returns to his town only to find that his position has been taken over by a Warrant Officer, Mandel, and that there are many more soldiers guarding the town than there were before. This only means one thing: The campaign against the barbarians has begun.
He is taken prisoner in his own town, stripped of all authority he had, and is humiliated by civilians and officials. He is treated as a barbarian because of his kind heart towards the barbarians. He is hanged until he cannot breathe ( but he is not killed ), and then after he is hanged by the arms until the muscles around his shoulder area are torn apart. His humiliation includes walking around town with beggars clothes, craving for food since he is not fed properly ( and regularly ) by the soldiers.
By the end of the novel, the reader is challenged to ask questions such as "Would I be willing to stand up for what I believe in even if it means humiliation?" or "What is freedom? What is justice?"
This is definitely one of the most challenging books I have read. Through use of graphic detail, Coetzee is not afraid to let readers know the extremes of the cruelty of man. This is what makes the novel compelling.
If you are in the mood of a story that is deep and at the same time though provoking, I would recommend "Waiting for the Barbarians".
on February 14, 2002
A compelling story of realization, truth, and revolution was Waiting for the Barbarians, by J. M Coetzee. The author utilized images and symbols in order to better define a meaning, and understanding, that we readers attempt to comprehend. This short novel though, stretches far from light reading. Coetzee describes the various realizations through figurative language, yet the Magistrate himself seems to have difficulty being decisive, so it all relates. He feels as if he is searching for something, trying to find an explanation that is directly in front of him, yet he may die still trying to find it. "There has been something staring me in the face, and still I do not see it," (p. 155).
Past histories of Empires often remain repetitive and continuous throughout time. There have always been the rulers, and then their followers, their slaves, whom they can control, beat, even torture if it suits them. However, this short novel presents a man whom is not content with the dealings of an overbearing Empire and the lesser Barbarians. He is one of the few that sees the vicious treatment as immoral, and cruel, and so he spends much of the story attempting to glance deeper into the meaning of an Empire and those whom live outside of it. He struggles to withhold his position due to his outrageous beliefs. It is justice that he seeks though. A fairness between the Empire and the Barbarians. He difficulty however, lies in his search to find justice.
"Justice; once that word is uttered, where will it end? Easier to shout No! Easier to beaten and made a martyr. Easier to lay my head on a block than to defend the cause of justice for the barbarians," (p. 108) One realization perhaps, that the Magistrate comes to, is that shouting No, going against the Empire is more difficult than a person perceives. No matter how wrong he assumes the Empire to be, how utterly repulsive the treatment is, he realizes that one man cannot change an entire history or future. He cannot change tradition; he cannot make this enormous transformation, for he is simply incapable.
Within the story, the Magistrate spends much of his time with women, but it was one woman in particular that aided in his changing of views on society. This woman was a Barbarian, but for some reason he held an emotional attachment to her. He pitied the woman, and was angry at the way that the Empire tortured her. They blinded her, left her with permanent scars. Perhaps this is when the Magistrate truly came to the realization that the Empire's treatment towards the Barbarians was unethical.
What the Magistrate is so desperately seeking is an answer to his questions. What is it that he should do? It is easier for him to just go against the Empire, and to be killed, than to actually work at changing the torturous traditions of the past. Although the first couple of chapters move fairly slowly, the story picks up with the Magistrate's search to find the truth in both the Empire and in himself. However, the ending leaves us craving what he will do with the new realizations that are brought upon him.
Waiting for the Barbarians is a difficult little novel, but a forceful, gripping story as well. The author opens our eyes to a world that we may never truly understand. A world, whose own inhabitants, never truly comprehend the complexity of life under rule.
The Barbarians are tired of fighting for what is rightfully theirs, and so they take back what they lost with pride. They leave those whom used to profit, in the same conditions to which they have been living for generations.
Four stars suit this novel entirely well. It is a moving story, which really gets its reader thinking, but doesn't excite them so much. However it would seem impossible for one to get excited over a book, that includes pages of torturing and suffering. Still the story grabs ones attention, and makes us look deeper into a life that we may possibly never understand. A life that perhaps the author himself doesn't even comprehend. Maybe he is looking to the story to provide him with a solid answer. Perhaps like the Magistrate, he will never find it.
on February 12, 2002
The story Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee is directed towards an audience that reads deeply, and thoughtfully. As a student I found that it was necessary to read different passages many times over because of his consistent usage of figurative language. In his story Coetzee uses two different techniques to do an exquisite job of conveying his story. The story that he tells portrays to us the reader how the Empire can corrupt and manipulate anyone.
In Waiting for the Barbarians, the final line is, "Like much else nowadays I leave it feeling stupid, like a man who lost his way long ago but presses on along a road that may lead nowhere"(156). The way I interpret this quote is that the Magistrate is saying that work for any object that lacks justice and common decency is wrong and is a lost cause. Even though I the quote I chose isn't structured as deeply as many of the others in his book are it still contains an element of complexity.
One of the two techniques that Coetzee uses is not naming anything except for Joll. When I started to read the story I noticed that Coetzee never once refers to where the Empires origin is, nor does it he ever call the Magistrate by anything but 'the Magistrate.' The lack of names doesn't only apply to the 'civilized' people, but also to the 'Barbarians.' I think that this adds an incredible element to the story because the different titles like the 'Barbarians,' and the 'Empire' could represent any number of different civilizations. And while some people may believe he is talking about specific civilizations they would be wrong.
The second technique that Coetzee uses is the dreams. Most of what the reader learns in this story comes out of what is learned through them. "I am trudging across the snow of an endless pain towards a group of tiny figures playing around a snow castle"(37). This quotes shows how the Empire is centered around itself. The idea that even the children should be working to expand an overwhelming force is wrong and frightening. Later on in the story after a few more dreams Coetzee writes, "A dead parrot: I hold it by the tail, its bedraggled feathers hang down, its soggy wings droop, its eyes sockets are empty. When I release it, it falls through the surface without a splash"(149). In this passage the reader can derive a representation for each object mentioned here. For example the parrot is a figurative representation of the town and its people. A parrot is a bird that repeats everything, and on top of that the parrot has no eyes, which means it cannot tell bad from good. The water obviously is a representation of the Empire is showed through the characteristics of the water, murkiness and lack of signs of life are some of these characteristics.
The final dream in this story says, "My footsteps crunch with...They settle on the shoulders and fill it out with pebbles for eyes, ears, nose and mouth. One of them Crowns it with his cap"(155). After the children had finished making their own little Empire they started to make people to fill it up. Personally what I pull from the first dream that I mention and the last one is that the people of the Empire have taught their children that they must conquer those that are weak and crush them. Also it seems as though the children have been taught to make all the people of their domains the same. The teachings of the children's parents come from what their parents taught them when they were young which is also frightening. A subtle thing that I noticed is that in the beginning of the story the Magistrate is trudging around, but here at the end he is lifted up in spirit and therefore his feet are only brushing the ground.
Waiting for the Barbarians by Coetzee gets many points across to the reader. One of these being that regimes of force can often stretch the law until it breaks and even then continue on in its unlawful manners of activity. Also the reader gets a good idea of what it would be like to have to deal with the idea that tomorrow could be your last in before your world is turned upside down which is what happens to the Magistrate.
on February 12, 2002
I found Coetzee's novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, to be a thought-provoking, yet at times unsatisfying novel. The storyline has an interesting plot: The eventual deterioration of the Magistrate's conduct in his duties leads to an act of rebellion, labeling him a prisoner of the Empire. However, the plot is drawn out almost to the point of being tedious to read at certain points. For instance, the account of his journey into the land of the Barbarians is spread throughout a few chapters, but it contains dull information that could easily have been done in one chapter.
Even though I found the pace of the book to be drawn-out, the premise is rather startling. The Empire makes a false enemy of the so-called Barbarians so that it can justify its brutality and achieve power. The Magistrate witnesses the torture of this group of people, but he does not consider them guilty of any crime. The book deals with the inner-workings of the moral obligations of an individual, which, in the Magistrate's case, almost leads to near self- destruction. In a sense, he turns himself in to the officials and ends up in jail.
The description of the Magistrate's behavior is vivid, so the reader is able to understand his character. On the other hand, you never get a clear picture of the barbarians, the Empire's officials, and even the Empire itself is vague. Because we never fully understand where or the when the setting takes place, the reading can become monotonous.
Overall, Waiting for the Barbarians was an intriguing book, but one that requires further insight than a simple free read.
on February 12, 2002
Waiting for the Barbarians, is a fascinating novel by J.M. Coetze that uses lots of imagery to attract the reader. It is a book with many underlying messages, such as Jolls' glasses, and the Magistrates dreams. This enchanting novel makes you pay close attention to the text, and think a lot about themes such as truth and honesty. It is about a peaceful Magistrate, who loses all of his power to the Empire. The Magistrate disagrees with the harsh and unjust treatment of the so-called "barbarians." He eventually becomes fond of one of the prisoners, and begins to care for her needs. The Empire sees what is going on with him and the Barbarian, and marks him as a traitor. He is literally forgotten by the people and becomes subject to the harsh and violent ways of the Empire. In actuality, the Empire itself looks at him as a Barbarian. To the attentive reader, they understand that the Barbarians are never involved in any barbaric actions, yet the Empire is the one doing all of the torture and gruesome acts. The Empire tries to expand its territory by stretching throughout the wilderness, concluding that everyone inferior to them is a barbarian and will be subject to harsh punishments. Eventually rumors of hoards of barbarians seeking revenge on the empire are brought to the soldier's insight. The frontier erupts into a state of panic. Once things become tough around the settlement and the soldiers are beginning to get bored of destroying the town, the Empire leaves, and the Magistrate, who was once labeled a traitor returns to controlling the small frontier, in the same manner that he did earlier on in the book. It is apparent that the message Coetzee is sending to the reader is that the Empire are the true barbarians, and the so- called barbarians are not killers at all, they are just looked upon like this because of their inferior ways and different looks. I enjoyed this book, and would suggest it to anyone who is looking to read outside the lines.
on February 12, 2002
Waiting For the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee is a fine book, that depicts civilization at it's worst. I found the book to be boring frequently, but other parts, especially towards the end, were very thought provoking and good to read.
The book starts out with a thrilling opening, but then moves on into a dreary description of the magistrate's routine life. The beginning illustrates the empire's brutality and very appalling ways of punishment. The magistrate realizes this cruelty and this is why Coetzee then progresses onto the Magistrate's "digging" into the past and truth. When the empire is sick of the magistrate's reality check, his realization that the empire is not telling the truth perhaps, when he proceeds to take the enemy back to it's fort, that is when the book gets interesting again. The tone and image that the book creates is rather depressing, but very fascinating and truly makes a person question his or her morals. Should a person go against a mistaken society and corrupt government if that person thinks that everyone else is wrong?
The novel gives the reader a harsh and depressing picture of a corrupt Empire run by a tyrant. The book raises the question of whether or not an empire's lie to conceal the truth that could possibly ruin a civilization is permissible. In this book the Magistrate realizes that maybe the empire is not everything it is talked up to be, and that perhaps the empire's inhumane punishments are wrong and possibly over used.
This book, even though it is well written and very stimulating, is not a book for everyone, especially kids. A person who has a lot of time to think and analyze as he reads, is the person to read this 156 page book. This book is also a great book to use in an English class full of mature kids who are willing to think and discover. Another great book to read is Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card.
on February 12, 2002
The underlying story of a faceless empire that crosses generations cunningly depicts not only the brutality and lack of order of large empires, but also in individuals. Our physical being, and the usage of pain, are contemplated as the only truths. The search for truth through fear and pain are started with the language such as this, "the tone of truth! Can you pick up the tone in everyday speech? Can you hear weather I'm telling the truth? ...No, you misunderstand me. I am speaking only of a special situation now, I am speaking of a situation in which I am probing for the truth, in which I have to exert pressure to find it." There is the magistrate, the hero of our story, talking with the only named man, the truly faceless torturer who believes in the unconditional power of the empire. Pain is graphically used as the medium for conveying the sick and twisted feeling that haunt each of us at our very core. Coetzee even forsakes the innocence of children to drive in the bitter nail. The quest for freedom from this beast pulls the Magistrate in every direction. Desperation to discover the Magistrate free from the nightmare keeps you turning the pages and hardly lets you put it down.
The story is able to generate convincing tension between the desire for luxuries and the need for self-purification. His problems are always believable, and you will constantly feel a sort of bond with the man whose only identity associates him with the being you find yourself absolutely detesting. You should not read this book if you are searching for some form of self redemption, but rather an deep analysis of the demons that live in us. An excellent intertwining of a shallow story line and deep realizations. A must read.