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Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
'What is that noise?' I ask when the guard brings
my food. They are tearing down the houses built
Even more so than the Soviet Union, it is hard to recall the South Africa of the 1970's, the virulently racist regime which so provoked intellectuals and activists of the Left. Twenty years ago, no one could fail to understand that this rather elliptical short novel was intended as an allegory for the situation in South Africa. But reading it today it seems, at least to me, to have lost much of it's power.
The narrator of the story is a minor Magistrate whose position on the periphery of the Empire has allowed him to avoid having to come to grips with his own distaste for the regime he serves:
I did not mean to get embroiled in this. I
am a country magistrate, a responsible official in the
But his self-deluded idyll is shattered by the arrival of Colonel Joll from the Third Bureau, "the most important division of the Civil Guard nowadays." Colonel Joll has come to the frontier to ruthlessly gather intelligence from among the aboriginal peoples. He begins with an old man and a young boy currently being held in jail by the Magistrate, who is confronted at first hand the effects of Joll's interrogation techniques and horrified by the senselessness of torturing these two prisoners. The Magistrate seeks to understand how Joll can resort to such methods:
'What if your prisoner is telling the truth,' I ask,
'yet finds he is not believed? Is that not a terrible
'There is a certain tone,' Joll says. 'A certain
tone enters the voice of a man who is telling the
'The tone of truth! Can you pick up the tone
of truth in everyday speech? Can you hear whether I
This is the most intimate moment we have yet had,
which he brushes off with a little wave of the
And so the Magistrate's dilemma is established, he simply wishes to serve out his allotted time in this backwater of Empire, but circumstances force him to consider the utter brutality of that Empire and it's repression of the barbarians, whom he knows to be essentially peaceful.
In symbolic penance for his complicity in the Empire's increasingly heavy handed treatment of the local natives, the Magistrate takes in a young barbarian woman. Each night he massages her wounded feet and bathes her, in a ritual that grows ever more fraught with sexual tension. Eventually, with war now imminent, he rides out into the arid wastes of the frontier to return her to her people.
This action suffices to make him suspect in the eyes of the men of the Third Bureau, but in addition, he undertakes a series of protests against their treatment of barbarian prisoners and ends up a prisoner himself. Eventually they enact a sort of faux crucifixion, in which he is strung from a tree, suspended by a rope through his arms and wearing a salt-bag hood. But they do not allow him to die, and in the aftermath of this incident, he asks Joll's successor Mandel:
'Have you a minute to spare?' I say. We stand
in the gateway, with the guard in the background
He turns away, but with a slow claw-like hand I manage
to catch his arm.. 'No listen!' I say. 'Do
He wrenches himself free and hits me so hard in the
chest that I gasp and stumble backwards. 'You
'When are you going to put me on trial?' I shout at his retreating back. He pays no heed.
But the Magistrate never is put on trial and when the Empire's expeditionary force disappears reprisals against captured barbarians begin. The Magistrate, now free to wander the town, witnesses some of these actions:
I stand in the road waiting for the quivering of
rage in me to subside. I think of a young peasant
Ultimately, with the Expeditionary Force lost, the men of the Third Bureau withdraw from town too and the Magistrate takes charge once more. As the book ends, the town sits, a quiet backwater once again, waiting for the barbarians to come.
The imagery, archetypes and situations which Coetzee uses to form his allegory are fairly obvious : the Empire stands for Afrikaner-ruled South Africa; the barbarians are the blacks of South Africa; the Magistrate, as evidenced by the ritual ablutions he performs, his time in the desert and his near crucifixion, is a Christ figure; and the Empire's officials, as evident in the final passage above, are as much prisoners of the repressive system of laws as are the barbarians. But it strikes me, reading the book twenty years after it was first published, how much the story depends on the reader to insert, South Africa, Apartheid, Afrikaners, blacks, etc. into the structure of the allegory in order for it to work. Taken purely on it's own terms, the book is somehow too detached from the subjects under discussion to have too powerful an effect on us. In some ways it just inhuman. Other than the Magistrate, none of the characters seem more than caricatures. The Empire is so distant and the barbarians so mysterious that we have no basis on which to judge the rival cultures. Of course, we all find torture and repression repellent, but even such horrific methods may be a lesser evil than the system which the oppressed would impose were they to triumph over the oppressor.
The final impact of the novel then is paradoxical. Where allegory typically universalizes a story, here it particularizes the tale. It succeeds as an extended meditation on the moral obligations of an individual, especially an official, who is uncomfortable about his nation's legal system and opposes the techniques used by his government. It evens succeeds in convincing us that the Empire is making a mistake in torturing these victims. But overall the story is so divorced from reality and has so few characters who resemble our fellow human beings that it has very little general applicability to the broader world outside the covers of the book.
Perhaps the best comparison is to George Orwell's magnificent short story, Shooting an Elephant. Orwell takes one entirely specific, seemingly insignificant incident and convinces us that a system, Colonialism, which would require that he shoot an elephant merely in order to perpetuate the system itself, is perforce illegitimate. He brilliantly extracts a universal message out of particular circumstances. It's hardly fair to judge another author against such an exacting standard as George Orwell, but Coetzee's novel does conspicuously fail to achieve this kind of universality.
-FEATURED AUTHOR: J. M. Coetzee (NY Times Book Review)
-ARCHIVES: "coetzee" (NY Review of Books)
-ESSAY: Homage (J.M. Coetzee, Threepenny Review)
-ESSAY : Guide to life : Which is the book that has taught you most about what life is really like? J. M. Coetzee chooses Tolstoy's War and Peace (booksonline uk)
-ESSAY: How I Learned About America -- and Africa -- in Texas (1984)(J.M. Coetzee, NY Times Book Review)
-ESSAY: Into the Dark Chamber: The Novelist and South Africa (1986)(J.M. Coetzee, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of THE TEMPLE OF MY FAMILIAR By Alice Walker (J. M. Coetzee, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of CHILE Death in the South. By Jacobo Timerman (J. M. Coetzee, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of LIFE AND DEATH IN SHANGHAI By Nien Cheng (J. M. Coetzee, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of WAITING The Whites of South Africa. By Vincent Crapanzano (J. M. Coetzee, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: J.M. Coetzee: Messages & Silence, NY Review of Books
Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai
Diamond Dust by Anita Desai
-REVIEW: J.M. Coetzee: Going All the Way, NY Review of Books
Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation by William H. Gass
-REVIEW: J.M. Coetzee: Against the South African Grain, NY Review of Books
Dog Heart: A Memoir by Breyten Breytenbach
-REVIEW: J.M. Coetzee: The Man with Many Qualities, NY Review of Books
Diaries 1899-1941 by Robert Musil
-REVIEW: J.M. Coetzee: Borges's Dark Mirror, NY Review of Books
Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges and translated by Andrew Hurley
-REVIEW: J. M. Coetzee: Kafka: Translators on Trial, NY Review of Books
The Castle by Franz Kafka and translated by Harman Mark
-REVIEW: J.M. Coetzee: 'Whither Dost Thou Hasten?', NY Review of Books
Panther in the Basement by Amos Oz and translated by Nicholas de Lange
The Iron Tracks by Aharon Appelfeld and translated by Jeffrey M. Green
-REVIEW: J.M. Coetzee: What We Like to Forget, NY Review of Books
The Nature of Blood by Caryl Phillips
-REVIEW: J.M. Coetzee: Blowing Hot and Cold, NY Review of Books
In the Dutch Mountains by Cees Nooteboom and translated by Adrienne Dixon
Roads to Santiago: Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History of
Spain by Cees Nooteboom and Ina Rilke
-REVIEW: J.M. Coetzee: Their Man On Earth, NY Review of Books
The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch and translated by Paul Vincent
-REVIEW: J.M. Coetzee : Only in Amerika, NY Review of Books
The Bride of Texas by Josef Skvorecky
Headed for the Blues: A Memoir by Josef Skvorecky
-REVIEW: of Waiting for the Barbarians (Irving Howe, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of Boyhood Scenes From Provincial Life. By J. M. Coetzee (Rand Richards Cooper, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: John Banville: A Life Elsewhere, NY Review of Books
Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life by J.M. Coetzee
-REVIEW: of GIVING OFFENSE Essays on Censorship. By J. M. Coetzee (Martha Bayles, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of LIFE & TIMES OF MICHAEL K By J. M. Coetzee (Cynthia Ozick, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: Ian Hacking: Our Fellow Animals, NY Review of Books
The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee
Ethics into Action: Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement by Peter Singer
-REVIEW: John Banville: Endgame, NY Review of Books
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
Because this is truly one of the worst book reviews I've ever read in my life. Composed mostly of quotes from the book with a severely limited understanding, let alone interpretation, of the material, this review is simple-minded and silly. You certainly don't have to like everything you read, but if you're going to have a web site devoted to reviewing books of this caliber, I would suggest taking a literature class or two.
- couldn't resist
- May-23-2006, 17:34
It was heartening to see that, in responding to me, you had adopted my own strategy for exploding your shabby argument -supplying the support of sales rankings. It made me think you were capable of learning something, but from your frighteningly small-minded reviews of great books on this site (calling for the burning of the "evil" _As I Lay Dying_, dismissing Rhys and Woolf as chick writers!), I should already have known better: you're not letting anything through the hard, thorny shell of ignorance you've excreted around yourself. You're capable of imitating and regurgitating - evidenced in all of that left-hating rhetoric you litter the reviews with, parroted, no doubt, from some pundit - but not understanding.
Our argument was about Orwell's essay (maybe the problem is that you're still unsure what one of those is; Google it and add it to your glossary) "Shooting an Elephant"; hence my supplying of sales ranks for Orwell's ESSAYS; you, on the other hand, supplied sales ranks for his novels. Also, in attempting to support your claim that no one reads Coetzee except the Nobel committee (yes, who are they to tell you about books...), you supply a bunch of quotes about his readership in South Africa. Fine, but where are those that say anything about his readership elsewhere? Oh, and what about the committees for the bushel of other awards he's won? Or the fact that _Disgrace_ was a bestseller in the States as well as in South Africa?
Frankly, though, this back and forth about Coetzee and Orwell is just a sideshow that your slack perusal of my initial comment led us to. I think folks should be reading both authors. My main point: as a purported reviewer, your responsibility to your readers should be to know something about the books you're talking about, to understand them, or at least to attempt to come to terms with them. And to help others do so. Clearly, you don't, you can't and you shouldn't - until you do and can.
You speak of fearing some "nitwit teacher[s]" trying to explain the "Stalinist propaganda" of _Death of a Salesman_ to your children. I can only hope that the teachers get there before you do, muddying the water with the only thing you're capable of seeing in literature: whether or not it's inline with your politics.
While it's endearing to see that you admire Orwell so much that you've placed him on your 10 Most Influential list, I wonder if you've considered the irony in how little he's obviously influenced you. Or, of what he'd think of your calls for relegating books that you disagree with politically to the trash heaps? Then again, perhaps you didn't read his books that carefully either and may have missed his points.
You nearly rattled my faith in the teaching of literature: if it's had so little effect on you who claim (big emphasis here) to read so much, what's the point? But then I remembered that you're exactly why I teach literature in the first place: as the antidote to idiocy. In fact, I'm thinking about moving to New Hampshire in hopes that I'll land your kids in my English courses and help them to peel off the blinders that, even now, you may be crippling them with.
- Aug-06-2005, 18:48
Orwell Up Close by Donald Morrison Time Europe, 30 June 2003
Is there a college student alive who hasn't heard of George Orwell? Or his prescient novels Animal Farm and 1984 — at least in their Hollywood versions? Or any of those chilling words and phrases he gave us: Newspeak, double-think, unperson, cold war, Ministry of Truth, Big Brother is watching, some are more equal than others?
Fifty-three years after Orwell's death, his books have sold more than 40 million copies in 60 languages, and a million new readers discover him every year.
Nobel prize for JM Coetzee - secretive author who made the outsider his art form
World acclaim for exiled South African novelist unread at home
Rory Carroll in Johannesburg Friday October 3, 2003 The Guardian
The son of liberal parents, John Michael Coetzee changed his middle name to Maxwell before using just his initials. He worked briefly in Britain as a program mer for IBM and in 1969 received a PhD from the University of Texas for computer-generated language.
With the exception of Disgrace, which sold more than 100,000 copies in South Africa, he is not widely read there and yesterday's jubilation was not widespread. The state broadcaster SABC led some bulletins on other news, such as car sales.
"I don't think the majority of South Africans know who he is," said David Attwell, a professor at the University of Witwatersrand. "We have a very small readership."
- Aug-03-2005, 15:03
1984: # Amazon.com Sales Rank: #161 in Books
Animal Farm: # Amazon.com Sales Rank: #246 in Books
And, of course, every schoolkid in America is required to read both. No one reads Coetzee except the Nobel committee.
- Aug-03-2005, 14:50
oj, please note the current sales rank (not the most accurate indicator of actual readers, but, sufficient, in this case, to give us a general sense) on Amazon of Orwell essays and of _Waiting_. The highest of any Orwell collection, 23,199; _Waiting_, 4,125. Think and fact check before you speak.
- Aug-03-2005, 14:46
Note that no one reads the book anymore, unlike Orwell.
- Aug-02-2005, 18:25
Note 1: Orwell's magnificent short story is an even more magnificent essay. I'll leave you two avid readers to look up the difference.
Note 2: Your final block quote has nothing to do with "reprisals against captured barbarians" that the magistrate witnesses. No such thing actually occurs in the novel.
Perhaps you misunderstood the passage much as you've simplified the rest of the novel. Yes, Coetzee is a South African writer, yes, the novel may be seen as a meditation on apartheid, but reading it narrowly as an allegory only applicable to one specific conflict between specific groups in a specific time is sort of like saying that the _Illiad_ loses its power to say anything about the nature of war now that the Trojans are "hard to recall"! (So the British Empire of Orwell you recall, but you're hazy on Apartheid South Africa and the Soviet Union?)
Perhaps the problem is not that you are a sloppy reader, as it seems here, but that your memory is so porous (willingly or otherwise) that you've forgotten that oppressive regimes have existed and continue to do so. In that case, lay off the literature for a while and hit the history section. Or at least the newspaper.
The "obvious" correspondence you found is certainly there, but generally, good readers look beyond the obvious, are capable of considering a work in light of biography and history, but also as a self-contained object external to these things. Since you seem to take this site and yourselves quite seriously (“I think we have the best book site on the web"), I hope that you'll be responsible enough to better yourself as a reader and reviewer before you tackle things beyond your ken.
You expect great books to "engage issues like good and evil and the struggle for freedom . . . in serious ways"? Train yourself, then, to recognize when you've witnessed that happening.
- Aug-02-2005, 16:31