June 26, 2017

Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee

Waiting for the Barbarians by J M CoetzeeMy book club is currently working through short books. So we’re now on J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians which is just 170 pages long.

But it should be a great 170 pages as not only has J.M. Coetzee won the Nobel Prize for Literature, this book has also won the CNA Prize, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize AND the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

First chapter sets the scene – we’re with the Magistrate (no one in the book has a name) in a frontier town. An investigator of the Third Bureau comes to find out what the Barbarians are plotting against the Empire. And the Magistrate (our narrator / central character) starts to feel uneasy about the behaviour of the Empire.

That theme continues through the book, and we explore where that leads.

I didn’t really enjoy reading this book, and I wouldn’t read it again. The back describes it as “an allegory of oppressor and oppressed” and it is a surprisingly easy read despite that. But I just didn’t enjoy reading it, didn’t engage with it, and didn’t really care what happened to any of the characters. A bit tedious really.

However, it is interesting that at no point are we given any reference points on which to hang the story. The empire could be the Romans – but they have muskets. The geography is a place of snow, and wind, and hot summers, and desert, and a lake and mountains! It almost makes me think of the made up medieval places you find in computer games.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

A short story telling the tale of those subjected to the harshest elements of the rule of Stalin in communist Russia.One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Published in 1963, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970.

I ended up re-reading the first pages of this one, as the book kept referring to “Shukhov” and I didn’t initially realise that our “hero” is Ivan Denisovich Shukhov – ooops! Once I got that sorted out though it turned into such an easy read. I really flew through it.

Before I go any further I think I should also admit that I’m not convinced that my review will do the writing of the book justice – it’s incredibly well-written. Rather like Help you just breeze through the story then afterwards it hits you what a horrendous and incomprehensible time you now understand a bit better.

So, the story does exactly what it says on the tin – you experience a full day in the life of Ivan Denisovich. From waking up in the hut in the cold, right through to wrapping up warm and falling asleep again. During the day you explore all the intricacies of camp life – the rules, the structure, the politics the dangers and the joys.

It’s amazing (on reflection) how many angles and details are covered in this short book, and in one day – that doesn’t feel cramped with activity.

It starts with breakfast and a tour of the camp, then out to the power station where they are trying to build walls against all the odds. The fascinating activity of lunchtime then back to the camp, evening activities – including the joy and angst of food parcels and tobacco, then bed.

The most fascinating thing for me was the layers of contact between different people. You have the official rules and even official rules that it’s impossible to enforce. Then you have the occasional sniff of the power of the prisoners (especially when they return from the days work) when the guards just have to go with the flow. Plus the intricate relationships between the prisoners – both within the same team, and others. The story has a few “new” prisoners in it, and it’s interesting to understand how the narrator sees their future in the camp based on how quickly they learn their place and how to fit in.

Fascinating & enjoyable – one I’ll try and read again.