Engl 4300
Recent British and American WritersLuke Whisnant

J.M. Coetzee and Waiting for the Barbarians

How to Pronouce His Name: Coetzee is of Dutch Afrikaaner descent, so there seems to be some uncertainty about how his name should be pronounced in English. The two options appear to be "kut-SEE," and (more likley) "kut-SEE-ah." To hear an audio file of the latter, which was the pronunciation used when his 2003 Nobel Prize was announced, click on the link (and use your browser back button to return to this page); notice when you listen that the "J," his first initial, is pronounced in the Dutch manner, with a very slight "D" or "R" sound at the beginning: "r'J. M."

Although as a boy he spoke Afrikaans with his relatives, Coetzee's parents spoke English around the house. He grew up bilingual.

[Note: In case your South African history is a little shaky, here's a refresher: the Afrikaaners were white European settlers (mostly Dutch, some German and Belgian) who settled in South Africa before it became a British colony. Also known as the Boers, the Afrikaaners fought two wars (1880-1881 and 1899-1902) against the British Empire. The struggle between Europeans to control an indigenous population on its own territory is one of the themes of Waiting for the Barbarians.]


        * Dusklands (1974)
        * In the Heart of the Country (1977)
        * Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
        * Life & Times of Michael K (1983)
        * Foe (1986)
        * Age of Iron (1990)
        * The Master of Petersburg (1994)
        * Disgrace (1999)
        * Elizabeth Costello (2003)
        * Slow Man (2005)


- Nobel Prize in Literature (2003), given (as you know) for an author's entire body of work.
- James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Waiting for the Barbarians (1980).
- Three-time winner of the CNA prize, South Africa's highest literary award.
- Irish Times International Fiction Prize for The Master of Petersberg (1995).
- Britian's Booker Prize for The Life And Times of Michael K (1983).
- A second Booker Prize was awarded for Disgrace (1999). This made Coetzee the only writer in history to ever win the Booker more than once.


- Born 1940 in Cape Town, South Africa.
- Studied both mathematics and literature at U. of Cape Town.
- Moved to England; worked as applications programer for IBM.
- Moved to U.S.; earned a Ph.D. at U. of Texas; his dissertation topic was the Nobel Prize winning Irish writer Samuel Beckett.
- Taught at NYSU-Buffalo (1968-1971), where he began writing his first novel, Dusklands.
- Was unable to obtain American citizenship due to his protests against the Vietnam War.
- In 1972 became a lecturer, then a professor of literature, at University of Cape Town, South Africa.
- In 2002 moved to Australia, where he earned citizenship and lives today with his partner, Dorothy Driver.


Waiting for the Barbarians is "an analogue of all men living in complicity with regimes that ignore justice and decency," says critic Sharif Hamadeh. He continues:

"First published in Britain in 1980, J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians was intended as an allegorical attack on Apartheid South Africa. However, by constructing the narration entirely in the present tense, and situating the story in an anonymous frontier settlement of an unnamed 'Empire', Coetzee eschews the limitations imposed by specificities of temporal, geographical and historical context and succeeds in attaining a universalism to which all writers aspire, but only the greatest realize.

"The novel details the fall from grace of an unexceptional magistrate of the Empire, and addresses the social perversions that necessarily attend to colonial and imperial projects driven by expansionist ambitions, pre-emptive philosophies and/or delirious self-righteousness."

--Sharif Hamadeh, on the Open Democracy website.

* * *

"J. M. Coetzee's distinguished novels feed on exclusion; they are intelligently starved. One always feels with this writer a zeal of omission. What his novels keep out may well be as important as what they keep in. And Coetzee's vision is impressively consistent: his books eschew loosened abundance for impacted allegory."

--James Wood, "Parables and Prizes." The New Republic, Dec. 20, 1999 : 42.

* * *

"It is surely a sign of a writer's achievement when old work can reacquire a startling, contemporary urgency. Of no recent Nobelist is this truer than J.M. Coetzee (pronounced cut-ZEE-uh). The prize may be awarded for a lifetime's achievement, but this Nobel feels as if it has been awarded for Coetzee's great allegorical novels from the early '80s, Waiting for the Barbarians and Life and Times of Michael K, which are uncannily in keeping with the temper of our War-on-Terror times. Reread today, the novels are chillingly prescient.

"This is a kind of historical joke, because Coetzee has long stressed the ahistorical nature of his work. South Africa received its only other literary Nobel 12 years ago, when the Swedish committee awarded Nadine Gordimer, the doyenne of antiapartheid writers, the prize a year after Nelson Mandela strode triumphantly from prison. But where Gordimer has tended to write directly out of her historical moment and speak (in fiction and in essays) back into it, Coetzee has recoiled from attempts to read his novels through the politics of the time. (When there was talk of turning Waiting for the Barbarians into a movie, he reputedly made it a condition that the film be set outside his homeland so as not to compromise the novel's allegorical placelessness.) He has recoiled, too, from the public demands of the writer-activist. A formidable recluse, he is the most ascetic and cerebral of contemporary writers. Dry wit doesn't get any drier than one South African writer's remark, on hearing that J.M. Coetzee had landed the Nobel: "We can be proud of our homeboy." Coetzee is a homeboy who doesn't hang.

"Set in an outpost of empire lorded over by the Third Bureau, Waiting for the Barbarians explores the political expediency of the idea of an Enemy. We witness the imperial forces, emboldened by technological hubris, set out to crush the barbarians in the name of saving civilization. Coetzee understands the brittle macho posturing, the deceits and self-deceits that mangle crusades against evil and end up fomenting enemies in the name of crushing them. The military commander ultimately accuses and tortures the novel's narrator, a liberal magistrate, for consorting with the enemy. The magistrate has already been rendered ethically impotent by his own swirling fears and by empire's call for solidarity."

--Rob Nixon, on the Slate Magazine website.  

Back to Engl 4300 Index