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!