Waiting for the Barbarians by J M Coetzee (Holiday Reading part 3)

I have enjoyed Coetzee’s books before – Disgrace, in particular. His spare and taut language seems a trademark and it is very prominent in this book.

It is an allegory, set in a timeless and placeless frontier of an empire. There are guns but no reliable means of communication; travel is on horseback or on foot. Coetzee does not seek to create an internally consistent imaginary world. He does not go in for long descriptions and if you want to pick points of practicality and analyse them, you will be disappointed. But that would be to miss the point of the book.

The timelessness and placelessness is central to the book’s meaning and value. As I write this, the UK media is dominated by the news that policemen have taken money from journalists in return for information and for turning a blind eye to telephone hacking. This is life at the frontier of ‘civilisation’ today in affluent western Europe, where you have to decide how much complicity you are prepared to accept and to live with. That is the point of this book, I think. It is about boundaries and what it means to cross them.

He does not really try to provide an answer to this overwhelming question. But the novel poses it and exposes it brilliantly.


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