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Qwiz5 Quizbowl Essentials – J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee is one of the most prominent authors in South African history. Raised in Cape Town, Coetzee began writing fiction in 1969 and was eventually awarded the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature. Although Coetzee is best known for his fiction, he has also written several semi-fictional memoirs and a number of essays. Read on to learn more about this reclusive yet internationally celebrated man of letters.

By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge, patterns that will help you answer questions. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at its five most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup about J.M. Coetzee. WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS

Published in 1980, Waiting for the Barbarians is one of Coetzee’s greatest works and was specifically cited by the Nobel Prize committee. The novel is set on the frontier of an unspecified Empire. The novel’s narrator, an unnamed Magistrate, lives in a town that lives in constant fear of the nearby native peoples, called only the barbarians. The Empire dispatches a special forces unit called The Third Bureau, led by the sadistic Colonel Joll, to counter a supposed barbarian threat. The Magistrate is drawn to the barbarians’ innocence, having a recurring dream of a faceless girl leading him among children playing in the snow. The Magistrate’s effort to save a young barbarian girl put him in painful conflict with the sadists of The Third Bureau, leading to his imprisonment and torture on charges of treason.


Life & Times of Michael K won Coetzee his first Man Booker Prize. The novel is set in a South Africa riven by a fictional civil war. The titular Michael K is an uneducated man born with a cleft lip who works as a gardener. Michael K leaves Cape Town with his ill mother to return to her birthplace of Prince Albert. Michael K endures starvation, imprisonment, and other indignities on his quest for freedom. While imprisoned at Camp Kenilworth, Michael K goes so far as to refuse to eat unless he is freed, which the camp’s medical officer eventually brings about. Michael’s fate remains uncertain at the end of the novel.


Foe was published 3 years after Life & Times of Michael K and takes place half a world away. Foe tells the tale of Susan Barton, a mother in search of her kidnapped daughter. Susan Barton is set adrift at sea and eventually lands on the same island as Robinson Crusoe and Friday. Although the trio eventually return to London, Susan is unsuccessful in convincing the English author Daniel Foe (based on Daniel Defoe) to dramatize her experiences in a novel.


In The Master of Petersburg Coetzee recasts another famous author of the past, one Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Dostoyevsky is the protagonist of Coetzee’s work, and he attempts to unravel the mysterious death of his stepson Pavel. Although Dostoyevsky did have a stepson of that name, the death is fictional; Pavel outlived Dostoyevsky. Throughout his investigation, Dostoyevsky is courted by the notorious nihilist Sergey Nechayev. Ultimately, Dostoyevsky is forced to reckon with the fact that he may simply be a pawn in Nechayev’s broader plans.


Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:

  • Although the circumstances in The Master of Petersburg aren’t exactly true, Sergey Nechayev was a real person. You can read about him in this article.

  • Read this article to learn more about Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe (or, as Susan Barton refers to him in Foe: Cruso).

  • In Elizabeth Costello Coetzee continued to play fictional games with his readers, only this time making up another author entirely. Read more about the book in this interesting overview and discussion in VQR Online.

  • Waiting for the Barbarians takes its title from a poem by C.P. Cavafy. Read it and hear it recited here!


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