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1 Burnside Literature- A to Z

Waiting for the Barbarians


Waiting for the Barbarians Cover

ISBN13: 9780140061109
ISBN10: 014006110x
Condition: Underlined
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trentonpersing, May 4, 2010 (view all comments by trentonpersing)
The novel Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee brings up multiple questions of morality. He creates a mysterious, unnamed Empire and an unexplained group of barbarians. He never lets the reader know if they actually exist or if they are created by the Empire. The novel’s background may lead to interesting discoveries and open up the novel to a larger interpretation.

The book was written by J.M. Coetzee. He is a white man born in South Africa and the book was published in 1980. For these reasons it is possible that he was writing about a much larger issue: apartheid. He also describes the landscape of the novel to be barren and unforgiving, which suggests the African desert. From this African feeling landscape, a morally twisted character emerges.

The main character is an unnamed magistrate, who rules the colony for the Empire. At the beginning, he is confronted with an unfamiliar culture and through the opening paragraph most of the book’s plot is foreshadowed.

I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire. Is he blind? I could understand it if he wanted to hide blind eyes. But he is not blind. The discs are dark, they look opaque from the outside, but he can see through them. He tells me they are a new invention. “They protect one’s eyes against the glare of the sun”… We do not discuss the reason for his being here…Instead we talk about hunting. (1)

Through this paragraph, he talks about blindness and hunting. It is very interesting how he does this because later, the man with the sunglasses, Colonel Joll, blinds a barbarian woman. The hunting is symbolic of searching and desire. After the magistrate meets Joll and discovers what he is doing, he begins to question the morality of his so called civilization. After Joll tortures a prisoner, the magistrate passes by the hut thinking, “I enter the hut holding the lantern high, trespassing, I realize, on what has become holy or unholy ground, if there is any difference” (6). He brings up again this question of morality and how the Empire seems to think its actions are justified. Next, Joll finds barbarians.

Colonel Joll goes out into the harsh wilderness in search of the barbarians. He does find people but they are harmless. When he brings them back he questions them and uses force to get the answers that he wants. When he leaves, the magistrate finds a barbarian woman in the streets begging for food. He then takes her to his home where he begins to wash her.

I wash slowly, working up a lather, gripping her firm-fleshed calves, manipulating the bones and tendons of her feet, running my fingers between her toes. I change my position to kneel not in front of her but beside her, so that holding a leg between elbow and side, I can caress the foot with both hands. (28)

His constant washing of her represents his need to clean his past. Even though he never laid a hand on her, he still aided in her torture. He allowed it to happen and did not attempt to stop it. This was his way of washing his hands clean, but he could not clean this from his slate.

Along with washing her, he began to search her nude body. This can be seen as him searching for an answer. Although he searched, he never found an answer.

All this erotic behaviour of mine is indirect: I prowl about her, touching her face, caressing her body, without entering her or finding the urge to do so…In the year I have known her, I have not for a moment had to interrogate my desire…But with this woman it is as if there is no interior, only a surface across which I hunt back and forth seeking entry…I behave in some ways like a lover – I undress her, I bathe her, I stroke her, I sleep beside her – but I might equally well tie her to a chair and beat her, it would be no less intimate. (43).

He begins to compare himself to Colonel Joll. Even though he is not beating her, he is only trying to search her for answers while trying to find forgiveness. In the end, he cannot find it and is left sleeping next to a woman that he cannot love.

Overall, the novel does a wonderful job of asking questions of morality and terror. Coetzee is able to create the unknown and also describe the fear of it as well. The main questions the reader will face is: Do the barbarians exist and when are they going to arrive? Coetzee gives plenty of clues for the reader to figure out these questions and are answered at the end of the novel. I highly recommend this novel but be prepared to have your morals evaluated and also to seek out the unknown.
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prashanth_k_murthy, April 23, 2008 (view all comments by prashanth_k_murthy)
No other tale of crime against humanity has been told with such intensity..Every page is a heart wrenching experience ...as if your soul is stirred a hundred times over.A timeless masterpiece from the author i admire the most.
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(4 of 14 readers found this comment helpful)
JaneEyre, March 14, 2008 (view all comments by JaneEyre)
A powerful book that develops its central character's moral ambiguity and complicity thoughtfully.
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(3 of 9 readers found this comment helpful)
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Product Details

Coetzee, J. M.
Penguin Books
Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England ;
Colonial administrators
Colonial administrators -- Africa -- Fiction.
Africa -- Fiction
Literature-A to Z
Edition Number:
Reprint ed.
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
April 1982
Grade Level:
from 12
7.86x5.02x.45 in. .29 lbs.
Age Level:
from 18

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Waiting for the Barbarians Used Trade Paper
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Product details 160 pages Penguin Books - English 9780140061109 Reviews:
"Review" by , "[A] distinguished piece of fiction....[Its] power of historical immediacy gives the novel its thrust, its larger and, if you wish, 'universal' value."
"Review" by , "I have known few authors who can evoke such a wilderness in the heart of man. He is an artist of a weight and depth that put him beyond ordinary comparisons....Coetzee knows the elusive terror of Kafka."
"Review" by , "The novel moves between claustrophobic enclosures and arid, exquisitely rendered open spaces that reveal treacherous trap-doors....The book keeps us on edge, uneasy."
"Review" by , "The book makes for compelling reading, largely due to the successful use of the present tense throughout and the vivid presentation of unfolding events."
"Synopsis" by ,

For decades the Magistrate has been a loyal servant of the Empire, running the affairs of a tiny frontier settlement and ignoring the impending war with the barbarians. When interrogation experts arrive, however, he witnesses the Empire's cruel and unjust treatment of prisoners of war. Jolted into sympathy for their victims, he commits a quixotic act of rebellion that brands him an enemy of the state.

J. M. Coetzee's prize-winning novel is a startling allegory of the war between opressor and opressed. The Magistrate is not simply a man living through a crisis of conscience in an obscure place in remote times; his situation is that of all men living in unbearable complicity with regimes that ignore justice and decency.

"Synopsis" by , Moving and powerful, this book presents the dark tale of an aging magistrate in an African frontier settlement, who finds himself becoming increasingly sympathetic toward the indigenous "barbarians" that the colonial empire's forces brutalize.

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