Waiting for the Barbarians can be read as an oblique parable of South Africa’s predicament and a prophecy for its future, as a retrospective account of the end of empire in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, as a portrayal of the twilight of colonialism and colonial power, and as a revelation of the inadequacy and sterility of masculine consciousness. Coetzee took his title from the poem “Waiting for the Barbarians” by Constantine P. Cavafy. Coetzee uses the poem’s notion that the barbarians “were a kind of solution” for the Romans, as a starting point for his examination of the Empire. The barbarian lands surround and thereby define the Empire; the barbarians, or rather the myth of barbarians, proves that the Empire exists and gives it a purpose. The Third Bureau, in order to justify its existence, attempts to locate and make war on barbarians, but inevitably, if ironically, Colonel Joll proves to be “in his heart a barbarian,” proves to be “the enemy.” The Empire’s perverse insistence on fighting barbarians is seen as a clear indication of its inability to accept change, its desperate resistance to the forces of social and political evolution.
The magistrate has accepted the fact that all human beings and all empires are transient. He is not naive about what course the future will or should take; he offers no solutions to the political, economic, or sociological dilemmas faced by this or any other empire; he knows that the Empire cannot simply open “the gates of the town to the people whose land” it has “raped.” Yet he is able to accept calmly the fact that the Empire too will pass, will become a moment in history, a curiosity, perhaps, for some future official of some future empire, no more important than the strange wooden slips which he has found in...
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About J. M. Coetzee
Full 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).