Sunday, May 04, 2008

Waiting for the Barbarians

A visionary novel by J. M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians is challenging with a lucid style and deceptive simplicity. It is an allegory of a place that seems familiar yet cannot be identified with any specificity. The protagonist, known as the Magistrate of the local outpost of the Empire, tells a story of the Barbarians poised on the edge of the Empire waiting. The story suggests conflict, yet there are no battle scenes. The Empire seems as amorphous as the threat from the Barbarians. There are even moments that seem Kafkaesque in their sheer surrealness.
The primary details of the story center on the relationship between the Magistrate and a young blind girl, a barbarian who begs for her survival. The Magistrate takes her in and the relationship that develops between them mirrors the growing dissatisfaction of the Magistrate with the Empire. He eventually takes action that will have significant consequences for his life, leading to lessons about freedom, justice, and the meaning of life within the Empire. The climax of the novel is powerful in the sense that principles are powerful in the lives of humans. The allegory is effective and the story is masterful. It is not surprising that Coetzee won the Booker Prize for this novel.

Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee. Penguin Books, New York. 1999 (1980)

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