Thursday, October 23, 2008

Waiting for the barbarians

Five pages into "Waiting for the Barbarians", by J.M. Coetzee, I realised that the main character was already as fully-formed and real as any other I had read. Five pages, and I knew enough about the man to like him, understand his motives and behaviour, the world he inhabited, and still want to know more. I guess they don't give out the Nobel Prize for Literature for nothing.

The novel concerns a rural village magistrate, whose easy life is disturbed by the arrival of soldiers preparing to fight the barbarian hordes that threaten the Empire. The prose is simple, direct. No flashy wordplay or obscure metaphors. It does not get in the way of the story. Number of times the word "quiddity" used: 0.

The obvious question in the story is who exactly are the barbarians - the largely unseen nomads who roam the plains and mountains, or the soldiers and villagers who grow increasingly hysterical over the non-existent threat. But there are more subtle themes in here too: what makes a man? Should you ever give up decency and honour in return for safety?

Awesome stuff.

1 comment:

  1. it is a great book and there are many more to come from coetzee. scary, true and extremely clever

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