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Waiting for the Barbarians

Average Rating 4.5
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  • Posted August 31, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Upon picking up this book you are immediately tempted to equate

    Upon picking up this book you are immediately tempted to equate it with South Africa and Apartheid, but it soon becomes clear that Coetzee has larger aspirations for this novel. If you want to read about Apartheid era South Africa read Coetzee's excellent Life and Times of Michael K. Waiting for the Barbarians is about the nature of oppression, in all times and places, in all forms and shapes. The oppressors and oppressed, even the time and place, are kept deliberately vague in order to allow Coetzee to explore this theme without the burden of history being overlaid upon it. The novel opens with the benevolent Magistrate of a small border outpost witnessing the cruelties of his empire as agents from the capital torture and kill the native "barbarians" because of the probably nonexistent threat they pose. He is deeply disturbed, but he does nothing to stop it. As the cruelties grow into atrocities the Magistrate sinks deeper and deeper into guilt and shame. When the empire finally turns on him he finds his voice, too late. But don't think we are meant to see the Magistrate as noble, as the lone voice of justice; his motives are often muddled, his will often broken. And as we read his account we come to realize that he is practicing his own form of oppression. He sees the barbarians as a people in need of civilization, a people in need of protection from themselves, in effect a people lesser than he. In this way Coetzee addresses not just the blunt, easy to see oppression of force, but also the far more insidious oppression of culture. And he leaves us wondering who the real "barbarians" are. At 160 pages this is a short novel, but don't be fooled, Coetzee's prose is so painstakingly precise he can tell a story in 160 pages that would take pretty much anyone else 300 pages to tell.

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    Posted February 27, 2013

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