Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Context

Waiting for the Barbarians confirmed the validity of Coetzee’s growing reputation as one of the most distinctive, skilled, and challenging writers of contemporary fiction. He is a South African of Afrikaner descent. From the beginning, his novels have been read as allegories of the troubled psychology and politics of his country. Such a characterization of Coetzee’s work, although not wholly inaccurate, is misleading in its narrowness of focus, because Coetzee is a sophisticated craftsman whose novels are quite interesting technically and because his vision of the human mind and human existence is complex and invites comparison with Franz Kafka. Even his political and historical focus is not so much on South Africa as it is on the perverse Western patriarchal mentality which has produced numerous atrocities throughout the centuries ranging from the abuses of the Spanish Inquisition to apartheid and the Vietnam War. In fact, one of the two novellas which constitute Coetzee’s first work, Dusklands (1974), is “The Vietnam Project,” a chilling delineation of the brutality and insanity of an American master of war. The other novella, “The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee,” and the subsequent novels—In the Heart of the Country (1977), which won the Central News Agency (CNA) Award, the premier South African literary award; Waiting for the Barbarians, which won the CNA Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and was chosen as one of the Best Books of 1982 (the date of its publication in the United States) by The New York Times; and The Life and Times of Michael K (1983), which won the Booker Prize—are all (as has been suggested) arguably prophetic accounts of the history and destiny of South Africa as well as very carefully written and compelling studies of complex and troubled psychological and mental states.