Adventures in Reading

Revisted: Waiting For the Barbarians by Coetzee

Coetzee is an author whose name I see rather regularly. Whether in magazines, newspapers, or simply one I come across at work, he seems quite popular. Waiting For the Barbarians plays into the dystopian genre without ever completely being a dystopian story. If you’ve enjoyed 1984, A Brave New World, or A Handmaid’s Tale you’ll undoubtedly enjoy this novel.

Set in an unknown landscape of an unknown world, the narrator or the “I” (we never learn his name) of the story shares his story as magistrate of an outpost of a mighty Empire. As the title suggests, the people of this town are waiting for barbarian invaders and nearly from page one to the final page one constantly questions the existence of the barbarians or perhaps more appropriately: who is more barbaric – the Empire or the barbarians?

The book jacket describes the novel as a story of “the oppressor and the oppressed” but I somewhat tended to disagree. In the sense of the citizens, the barbarians, and the Empire this is true; however, the narrator spends the first half and the last few pages of the book discussing women in terms of objects and his careless, sexual use of them. Likewise, even as he discovers the barbarism of the empire he still continues to discuss them as uneducated and uncivilized fools. Even by the end of the novel, when the citizens of this outpost have seen the destruction of the Empire and have the opportunity to leave, they remain docile and under the yoke of the magistrate who has resumed power.

Perhaps Coetzee intended the story to be like, for example, embracing an imperialist mind sight, but it creates a somewhat monotone atmosphere for the novel. The magistrate who is at one point described of trying to be a hero, a martyr, the one who sees the truth – never really seems to grasp the truth except in his own response to his environment and pain. In this way, it is a very internal and self-exploring novel. An enjoyable read, but a novel in need of a better jacket summary.

Whenever I think of J.M. Coetzee I immediately recall a post in which a blogger posted an experience of visiting a bookstore, asking where Coetzee (perhaps his latest) was located, and a bookseller unfamiliar with the author had to look him up (and I’m assuming probably also asked about spelling). The poster was most irate about this experience, complaining about people uninterested in literature working in bookstores, and ranting how booksellers should have to read book reviews, news, etc.

At the time I wanted to say something most scathing, but resisted because I figured it would be a futile experience, but here I am months later still nagged by the ebbing memory of the post. What I had wanted to say was: considering our miniscule wages and the current retail environment, there is simply no way a bookstore employee is going to get paid to read about books and no employee in their right mind is going to spend valuable free time researching books to directly better help the customer.

While J.M. Coetzee, an award winning South African writer, may be a big name to some he’s not really a big name when it comes to selling books. Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, Jane Austen, Stephanie Meyers, and David Sedaris – all yes, but Coetzee is scraping the bottom of the barrel. Simultaneously, there are so many new books coming out it would be impossible for someone to remember all of them. Many booksellers have a specialty area that reflects their own personal interests, so please be considerate in realizing the enormous amount of books and not everyone may have the same taste in books as yourself.

And while I’m getting this off of my chest, a different poster had a list of complaints about her repeated bookstore experience, but one I found rather amusing: bookstore employees repeatedly asking her if she needed help. This happens when a customer (even if previously asked) projects the look of being lost, is a customer we don’t recall (and at the end of the day dear book buyer you are just another one), or we think you’re shoplifting. If you are a regular and consider yourself a regular (though you’re probably not as much of a regular shopper as you think you are) but are still pestered by overly helpful booksellers I suggest taking the odd few minutes to become more friendly and chances are we’ll remember you. If you think being mean works, it doesn’t, to us that’s just another shoplifting ploy.

P.S. It’s a pretty great book!


This isn’t really related to your post at all, but can you please explain why you repeatedly used “employ” instead of “employee” in your entry?

Comment by Claire C. Cake

I haven’t yet read anything by Coetzee, but must get around to it.

I suppose we all get bees in our bonnets at times, I imagine the Coetzee poster succumbed. Personally, I would expect that a English language bookshop employee would have heard of Coetzee given his recent Nobel Prize and exposure in the press. But if they didn’t I’d be mildly surprised, not irate.As you say, we all have different reading tastes and can’t know everything.

Bookshops are the one place I don’t get asked if I need help. , which is one reason I like them so much) As a reader and introvert, I prefer being left to browse and to ask for help if I need it, so I can sympathize with the poster’s exasperation. From your insight, I suppose she needs to work on looking less shifty!

Comment by Sarah

Claire C. Cake: My laptop’s dictionary is set to British English (something it’s refused to change) and I believe that “employe” is an acceptable British usage of “employee.” I’m assuming when I copy and pasted it WordPress corrected it for “employ” rather than “employee.”

Sarah: Some excellent points Sarah, though even Nobel Prize winners are a tough one for people to find. I confess I don’t know how many of my co-workers know Doris Lessing won most recently and I wouldn’t dare ask anyone about the Man Booker. Children’s awards might be a bit more problem, because we usually spend a few weeks continuously selling out of them.

I am completely with you when it comes to being an introvert browsing, and that applies to bookstores, clothes, grocery, etc. For me, if I need help I’ll ask. Not that the odd conversation is never appreciated but most often it’s not.

Comment by bookchronicle

Crazy Brits.

Comment by Claire C. Cake

Claire C. Cake: And another reason to finally fix my laptop! Thanks for pointing out the error.

Comment by bookchronicle

I’ve only read one Coetzee (Disgrace), in the year he won above-mentioned Nobel Prize in Literature. The story rang true, and I remember it depressed me, which is not to say it wasn’t good.

…or we think you’re shoplifting. So that’s why they keep bugging me at the bookstore. :)

My experience has been that at the used-books indie bookstore that I frequent, there is this one person there who really knows his books. I can forget both title and author of a book I’m looking for (which happens when I don’t get any sleep), describe the book to him, and he would probably be able to find the book for me and know the genre, without a computer. Pretty impressive. I also frequent the more traditional B&N, and usually their employee turnover rate is high, so I only know a couple of familiar faces who are there consistently.

BTW, judging from the amount and variety of books you have read, it is probably a lucky bookhunter who asks for your help in finding a book at your store.

Comment by onlyanovel

Onlyanovel: I’ll have to take a look at Disagrace. I did enjoy Waiting for the Barbarians and he’s definitely an author I always intend to pick up again… but I’m sure you know how that goes!

Secondly, thank you! I do pride myself on being one of the more book-aware associates at my store, and definitely one of the advantages of shopping at independent stores I have found is that often it’s really involved book lovers that work there. But when I go to a mega-store, I admit I usually am pretty surprised if I inquire after an author or book and the seller knows what I’m talking about right off.

Comment by bookchronicle

elizabeth costello, coetzee’s 2nd last book could be an enjoyable read. if read from a southafrican perspective even better.

Comment by bblondie

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