22. Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee

Hello and welcome to Kristina’s Book Review Podcast. I’m Kristina. In this episode of the podcast I’m going to review Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee.

I have to say I disliked this novel for many reasons. One of them is it was boring. I wasn’t engaged with the story. Moreover the male protagonist didn’t evoke sympathy. Quite the reverse, he annoyed me. Some say it’s difficult to read. I say it would be difficult if it was believable. My problem with this novel is I didn’t really feel for the characters. Maybe except the barbarians. But the first things first.

Waiting for the Barbarians was written by the South African-born Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee and published in 1980. He was born in Cape Town, Union of South Africa, studied in the UK and in the USA. He relocated to Australia in 2002 and lives in Adelaide. Coetzee was the first writer to be awarded the Booker Prize twice. The first Coetzee’s novel I’ve read was Disgrace which I didn’t like as well. Again, it was utterly boring and I didn’t feel the connection with the protagonist. But there is not time and to be honest no desire to review this novel. Maybe another time.

Back to Waiting for the Barbarians. The story is narrated in the first person by the unnamed character who is a country magistrate of a frontier town, “a responsible official in the service of the Empire”. He wants a quiet life in quiet times and dreams when he passes away he hopes “to merit three lines of small print in the Imperial gazette”. But his dreams never came true.

Once upon a time Colonel Joll, an army officer, the interrogator, arrives and brings barbarian prisoners into town. The people they call barbarians are “nomads, they migrate between the lowlands and the uplands every year, that is their way of life. They will never permit themselves to be bottled up in the mountains.” Colonel Joll uses violence towards the barbarians to get rid of them. The magistrate is aware of tortures. However he did nothing, just waiting to retire. Which means he watches the sun rise and set, eats and sleeps with young woman The magistrate’s obsession with young women is unbelievable. He can’t think of anything except sex. Disgusting. But the most disgusting is Coetzee shows the magistrate as a victim of regime. Whereas he is a regime.

That’s why I hated the protagonist. I don’t believe him. He changes his opinion of the Empire in the twinkle of an eye when meets a blind barbarian girl he falls in love with or just feels guilty to her. Yes, it’s possible. But what impossible is to blame the system not realizing or just not wanting to, you are the part of the system. He is responsible for what going on in his town. However he refuses to accept that fact.

As you can see I don’t respect the protagonist. I don’t feel the sympathy for him. You might think I’m heartless or ruthless or cynical. Well, I’m not, actually. But the thing is if you don’t want to take part in this mess, just go away. Otherwise you are in. The protagonist thought he did the right thing by reuniting this girl with her family. But this act drew after it important consequences. He became a prisoner.

After I finished the novel I’ve read some reviews. And they all were positive. Well, tastes differ. I have to say the novel is straightforward and “it could have been better, perhaps, but it could have been worse.”

I’m looking forward to your responses in the comment section on my website which is krisland.ru.

And as always, I conclude my book review podcast with one of my favorite Bette Davis’ lines from the film called “Cabin in the cotton”: “I’d like to kiss you, but I just washed my hair. Bye.”

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