Waiting for the Barbarians


One of the more famous allegories written by J. M. Coetzee, one of South Africa's well-known writers, Waiting for the Barbarians (1982)is written in the voice of the Magistrate of a remote post of the Empire, the book tells the story of the eccentric old Magistrate, and the conflict between the officials of the Empire, and the Barbarians in the Desert, whom they expect to attack. The Magistrate obsesses a bit about his sexual eccentricities, but it is part of the book's theme of humanity. The narrator is very self aware, and is continually calling everything into question.



With Nadine Gordimer:

The most obvious and direct dialogue between Gordimer and Coetzee was when both appeared on the same platform at an event hosted by the Congress of South African Writers. Salmon Rushdie was supposed to speak with Coetzee, but the infamous fatwa had been issued a few weeks before and COSAW decided to ask Rushdie not to come, as they could not guarantee his safety. Gordimer was invited to speak instead. Coetzee spoke first, stating two basic points: that COSAW had cut a deal with the Muslim fundamentalists as regards to the Rushdie thing, and that "Fundamentalism abhors the free play of signs, the endlessness of writing…. It stands of the one founding book, and after that - NO MORE BOOKS" (Morphet). Gordimer, the vice president of COSAW, tried to defend her group's actions, stating, "Why must Salman Rushdie's life be sacrificed for our principles?" (Morphet). "Gordimer's choice had been to write with the authority of history because history was to be the force that would deliver freedom - to herself and to tell the pained and oppressed lives in a human community. For Coetzee, as we have seen, there is no "history," only "histories" - endless stories moving in multiple directions and presenting themselves to him as a writer - and they can offer no deliverance" (Morphet). The speeches were never published, but brought to the surface a debate between the two that had been gathering for years.

With Hemingway:

Coetzee's use of language is compared with Ernest Hemingway's writing style. Both are very lean, and sparse with words. James Wood compares the two and says "But there is a point beyond which pressurized shorthand is no longer an enrichment but an impoverishment, and an unnatural containment."


About J. M. Coetzee

J. M. Coetzee pictureFull name: John Michael Coetzee

Born: February 9, 1940 in Cape Town, South Africa

Education: studied first at Cape Town, then earned a Ph. D. at the University of Texas at Austin. Joined the faculty at the University of Cape Town in 1972.

1974: first novel, Dusklands, published

1980: Waiting for the Barbarians is published; Coetzee wins South Africa's highest honor, the Central News Agency Literary Award for it

1983: Coetzee wings the Booker Prize for The Life and Times of Michael K.

October 25, 1999: Coetzee becomes the first author to ever win the Booker Prize twice, for his novel Disgrace.

Quotes from Coetzee:

"…I would contend that we all suffered, together. We lived an impoverished intellectual life, just as we lived an impoverished cultural life and an impoverished spiritual life. If there is any general thesis in the book, it is that the unintended or not-fully- intended consequences tend to be more significant than the intended consequences" (Coetzee, as quoted in WLT).

"The historians and political scientists to whom we assign the task of comprehending apartheid - of comprehending our immediate past in South Africa - have nothing to say about it that interests me" (Coetzee, as quoted in WLT.)

"But it isn't a matter of whether I accept the distinction: it is a fact of life that people make that distinction, and act in terms of it" (Coetzee, as quoted in WLT).

"One might respond that, as long as the rivals see each other as rivals, their objective statures are irrelevant" (Coetzee, as quoted in Todorov).

"The censor is a figure of the absolutist reader: he reads the poem in order to know what it really means, to know its truth" (Coetzee, as quoted in Todorov).

About Waiting for the Barbarians:

"The narrator of Waiting for the Barbarians tells us what any Coetzee narrator might, that his ear is "tuned to the pitch of human pain." Coetzee's prose is able to register physical pain, and the wrack of moral confusion, so acutely that we must sometimes set his slim books down" (Kunkel).

"The main character in his allegorical novel, "Waiting for the Barbarians," is a magistrate in an outpost at the edge of an empire. He is aware of the dangers of passing judgement on the barbarians: while his fellow settlers blame them for lying drunk in the gutter, the magistrate finds fault with the settlers for selling them the liquor. Yet for all of his sensitivity he fails to understand the barbarian girl he adopts out of a mixture of compassion and lust. The cultural distance is too great, and at the end of the novel the magistrate concludes that his liberalism was no more helpful to the barbarians than the behavior of the soldiers who make war on them" (Economist).

Critics on Coetzee and his other works:

"J. M. Coetzee's distinguished novels feed on exclusion; they are intelligently starved. One always feels with this writer a zeal of omission. What his novels keep our may well be as important as what they keep in. And Coetzee's vision is impressively consistent: his books eschew loosened abundance for impacted allegory" (Wood)

"Precisely because he is a very good writer and not a great writer, Coetzee emits prize-pheromones" (Wood).

(About the critical essays written about "The Lives of Animals"): "A literary critic, a primatologist, a historian of religion and a theoretician of animals rights have all been called in to figure out what Coetzee is up to" (Kunkel)

"Literature does not proceed like science. It draws upon other means to lead to knowledge. The writer can project himself into the souls of people, historical or fictitious, and bring us revelations, which, even if they remain unproven, can sometimes enlighten more that the long accumulation of facts produced by the historian, the psychologist or the sociologist" (Todorov).

"The writer, every writer, likes to see himself as a saint and a martyr, valiantly combating an omnipotent and abominable tyrant. But in reality, according to Coetzee, the difference between the adversaries is minimal: they are brother-enemies, mirror images one of the other" (Todorov).

"Coetzee's real inspiration, even if he refers to him only in passing, is Nietzsche" (Todorov).

"All true works of art create values, an in so doing they are political" (Todorov).

"The poet does not need to dedicate himself to a cause, noble or ignoble, in order to accomplish his mission: he does so by being a poet" (Todorov).




**University at Chatanooga English Department This is a list of J. M. Coetzee's works, in order by the date they were written, along with a looooong list of secondary resources on the author, so if you want to find a book about or by J. M. Coetzee, this is one place to start! http://www.utc.edu/~engldept/booker/coetzee.htm

*Encyclopedia.com's biography on Coetzee. Actually, it's the entry that everyone and his brother has posted on the web. Word for word, every encyclopedia is the same. I thought I'd post it up here once, even though I don't know which is the original (::sigh::).

***J.M. Coetzee Biography. An excellent resource. Not only the most extensive biography I've found, but also includes hypertext links and many resources about Coetzee. It takes a while to load, but I guarantee it's worth the wait!

**J.M. Coetzee in the New York times archives. A list of links to articles printed in the NY Times related to Coetzee; two were written by our author, the rest are about his works. Includes a review on "Waiting for the Barbarians" from 1982!

*Memories of Underdevelopment - J.M. Coetzee's account of his South African boyhood. by Lakshmi Gopalkrishnan A review of Coetzee's first book of an autobiographical trillogy, "Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life."

*The Boston Phoenix's article wherin the "Reviewer discusses the author's recollections of his childhood, "Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life."" A good review, some notes about "Waiting for the Barbarians."

*Salon.com's article on "Boyhood: scenes from a provincial life" by J. M. Coetzee According to their site, it "Discusses the author's memoir of his middle-class upbringing in South Africa, and the light it casts on his other literary works." And it does.

*Zuzu's Petals Online Bookstore/ Fiction Books
A rather eclectic list of excellent books available for purchase, including "Waiting for the Barbarians."

***The New York Times: Book Review Search Article "INTO THE DARK CHAMBER: THE OVELIST AND SOUTH AFRICA" Date: January 12, 1986, written by J. M. Coetzee! An excellent glimpse into what the writer feels directly about colonialism and his trade.

**"Coetzee and the disgrace of liberation" And article by S. Prasannarajan on the topic of our author and the relationships between writer and race. A very interesting article, and hey look, a quote from Nadine Gordimer!



This book is one of those excellent books that must be cleared with the principal first. It is highly controversial, deals with difficult topics, and although short in length and simple in prose, is still a hard book to read for the violence.

Although the book is not set in any named location, it would be worthwhile to study colonialism and the building of Empire.

A good writing activity would be to have the students rewrite the story from another point of view. How would it change if the journey to return the barbarian girl was written from her point of view, or one of the soliders, or the barbarians she is given to? How would the scenes change if Joll was the narrator, or the barbarians, or a civilian in town? What would the fisherfolk think? This kind of activity requires a close reading, lots of creativity and reader response. It's a fun way to induce reflection on the story, especially the non-narrating characters. After all, isn't one of the things the book deals with silence and not being represented?

I highly suggest the English Journal article by Lee J. Woolman sited below as an excellent resource for teaching this book.



The Economist "Oh, but our land is beautiful." v307 n7555 (June 18, 1988): 96

Kerr, Douglas. "Three Ways of Going Wrong: Kipling, Conrad, Coetzee" Modern Language Review (Jan 2000): 18-27

Kunkel, Benjamin, "Eat, Drink and be Chary." The Nation, v269 July 5, 1999: 32

Morphet, Tony "Stranger Fictions: trajectories in the liberal novel." World Literature Today v70 n1 (Winter 1996): 53-6

Moses, Michael Valdez. "The mark of Empire: Writing, History and torture in Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians." Kenyon Review v15n1 (Winter 1993): 115-127

Todorov, Tzvetan and Messud, Claire. "Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship." The New Republic. c215 n21 (Nov. 18, 1996). p 30

Wood, James. "Parables and Prizes." The New Republic, Dec. 20, 1999 : 42

Woolman, Lee J. "Books Worth Teaching Even Though They Have Proven Controversial--Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee" English Journal v82n4 (April 1993) : 87

World Literature Today "An Interview with J. M. Coetzee." v70, n1 (Winter 1996) : 107



Colonial & Postcolonial Literary Dialogues

Home -- Themes -- Texts -- Links -- Search -- About Us

Page Created by: Theresa Johnson

Last Updated: 4/01