Waiting for the Barbarians


Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) by J.M. Coetzee is the first-person narrative of a magistrate in a fictional settlement at the frontier of an empire plagued with rumors that the indigenous people, the "barbarians," are planning an invasion. Those captured are tortured or killed, and the magistrate finds himself at odds with the empire's bloody campaign, partly because of his relationship with an indigenous girl who has been blinded by her torturers. Due to his growing opposition to the methods of colonialism and his empathy, the magistrate shifts from the side of persecutor to that of the persecuted.


The style of prose, austere and penetrating, reminded me more of Cormac McCarthy's work than other Coetzee novels, specifically McCarthy's Blood Meridian (1985) and The Road (2006). Coetzee is extraordinary for his striking accuracy in conveying through language the nuances of thought and feeling and action, giving the reader a vivid picture from which to draw meaning. I enjoyed Coetzee's delivery of this story and the language more than the tale itself. The novel is effective in how it brings the reader into another man's head, in a way that only a book can. Which is why I'm not so interested in seeing Ciro Guerra's film based on the novel (starring Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson, and Gana Bayarsaikhan), which already has poor reviews following its premier at the Venice Film Festival in September 2019. The film is set to be released in August 2020, and while it may soon be forgotten, the novel has already become a classic, included in Penguin's list of the twenty greatest books of the 20th Century.

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