Waiting for the Barbarians opens onto a conversation between the magistrate and Colonel Joll; the magistrate narrates, beginning the novel with a comment on Joll’s sunglasses—he’s never seen anything like them, and wonders if Joll is blind. The two, meeting at an inn located in the settlement of the magistrate’s jurisdiction, drink from a flask. The magistrate notes that Joll doesn’t discuss why he’s been sent to the settlement—he just knows that Joll has arrived from the capital of the Empire under “emergency powers.”
The magistrate establishes the connection between blindness and Joll’s sunglasses the instant he meets him, setting up what, in retrospect, turns out to be an ironic premonition. Joll’s glasses both symbolize an impenetrability—the magistrate cannot look into his eyes and “read” him, though he can see the magistrate’s eyes—as well as a filtration of the world around him, such that he manipulates what appears to him as true, like he does whenever he interrogates a prisoner. Note also the “emergency powers,” a vague phrase that will allow the Empire’s agents to justify even their most inhumane actions.
Joll describes a hunt he participated in, and killing a “mountain” of animals. The magistrate discusses hunting and fishing in the settlement, emphasizing the cycle of the seasons and migrations of birds. Joll retires early, and the magistrate says that he’s told the staff at the inn of Joll’s important status as a member of the Third Bureau, “the most important division of the Civil Guard nowadays.” The magistrate leaves the inn, opting to sleep outside on a mat; he wakes up before dawn, and makes note of the beautiful star-speckled sky, adding that he hasn’t seen the Empire’s capital city since he was a young man.
The magistrate’s decision to alert the staff of the inn that they’re hosting an important guest suggests that he feels a certain pressure to ensure Joll forms a good impression of his settlement. Further, the magistrate’s focus on the cycle of the seasons reflects his preoccupation with cyclical time and a closeness to nature. The fact that he hasn’t been to the capital since his youth suggests that he’s willfully refrained from returning.
The magistrate’s narration then cuts to another conversation with Joll. They are in a hut next to the settlement’s granary; two prisoners are being held there. The magistrate explains to Joll that they don’t have any facilities for prisoners, since there is little crime in the village and punishments are usually issued in the form of fines or mandatory labor. The magistrate tells Joll that the prisoners were picked up a few days ago, after a raid which occurred about twenty miles away. He adds that raids are unusual, since the nomads usually stay away from the Empire’s forts. The prisoners, he says, claim to have been uninvolved in the raid, and he offers to help Joll with their language if he desires to speak with them, adding: “perhaps they are telling the truth.”
The magistrate takes special caution to inform Joll that crime is rare in the village—to convey to Joll that the settlement has a certain quality of innocence and peace. He seems to be worried that Joll will make a bigger deal than necessary out of the prisoner’s arrests, and perhaps conclude that the barbarians are a perpetual problem. Further, that the magistrate vouches for the prisoners by suggesting they could be telling the truth demonstrates the magistrate’s hesitation towards assuming they’re guilty—a hesitance Joll doesn’t express at all.
The prisoners are a young boy and his uncle. Going up to the barbarian boy, the magistrate says “we want to talk to you,” but the boy does not respond. A guard then chimes in, accusing the boy of pretending to not understand. Having noticed that the boy’s face is bruised and swollen, the magistrate asks who beat him, but the guard denies any involvement, claiming that the boy “was like that when he came.” The magistrate then asks the boy, directly, who beat him, but again gets no response—though he notes that the boy stares over his shoulder at Colonel Joll. Trying to explain why the boy is staring, the magistrate tells Joll that the boy has probably never seen sunglasses before, and must think Joll is a blind man. He smiles, but notes that Joll doesn’t smile back—it seems that, in front of prisoners, one must maintain a certain demeanor.
When the boy stares at Joll after the magistrate asks who beat him, we can infer that Joll is the perpetrator. The guard’s response to the magistrate—that the boy was bruised and beaten when he came—therefore suggests that he feels pressure not to squeal on Joll, who must have ordered the guard not to say anything. Joll’s sense of brooding intimidation comes to the fore in this scene, as we see how he’s starting to manipulate the magistrate’s very own guards. Further, the magistrate’s suggestion that the boy must think Joll is a blind man holds an unintentional irony—that Joll truly is blind to the humanity of the barbarians.
The magistrate then turns to the barbarian man, and explains why he’s been arrested. He explains that Joll visits all the forts on the frontier, his job being to “find out the truth.” But the man replies that he and his nephew are innocent; they know nothing about thieving, he says, and were simply on their way to the magistrate’s fort in order to see the doctor, when they were stopped “for nothing.” The boy, he adds, has a sore that will not heal. The barbarian boy then shows everyone a sore on his arm, and the magistrate leaves, walking back with Joll to the inn.
The magistrate’s introduction of Joll as someone employed to “find out the truth” implies that he is still going along with Joll at this point—that he still believes Joll works to honestly and justly deal with the prisoners to find out whether they are innocent or not. The boy and the uncle also seem wholly innocent in this scene, based on the boy’s sore and the uncle’s explanation. This will not matter to Joll, though.
The magistrate tells Joll that they haven’t taken any prisoners in a very long time, and explains that the “so-called banditry” of the nomads (referred to as “barbarians”) isn’t really that severe: they usually just steal a few sheep or take a pack-animal from a train. He adds that sometimes his men raid the bandits in return, but ultimately he expresses an empathetic understanding of them as “destitute tribespeople” who, living along the river, become accustomed to their unique was a life.
The magistrate takes special care here to again reinforce the rarity of there being prisoners at his settlement, perhaps as a final plea to get Joll to not take the matter too seriously. More significantly, the magistrate downplays the occasional crimes of the barbarians, citing their banditry as a way of life, which in turn boldly downplays the authority of the Empire to act against the barbarians.
The magistrate then once again suggests that the barbarian man, the older prisoner, was telling the truth earlier, saying that it’s unlikely that they would have been brought along on a raiding party. The magistrate notes that he’s becoming conscious of the fact that he’s pleading for their innocence, and asks Joll what use, even if the prisoners are lying, they would be to him. Joll, the magistrate notes with irritation, is prone to providing cryptic silences; all Joll says is that he ought to question them later that evening, regardless of their possible innocence. The magistrate offers to help Joll with the prisoners’ language, but the Colonel tells him that the magistrate will find it “tedious”—there are “set procedures” he performs.
While the magistrate has been subtly pleading for the prisoners’ innocence all along, what’s perhaps most significant here is his question to Joll about what use the prisoners would be even if they were lying and guilty, for this shows that the magistrate personally wouldn’t care if they were. This hints at the magistrate’s heightened concern for the well-being of the prisoners, instead of the law’s mandates, suggesting that the magistrate has sympathy for the barbarian’s way of life because he acknowledges that it naturally clashes with the Empire.
The magistrate’s narration then shifts to a point after Joll’s interrogation. He notes that, despite peoples’ claims to having heard screaming coming from the granary (where Joll questioned the prisoners), he heard nothing, even though his ears were “tuned to the pitch of human pain” the entire evening. The magistrate then says that, when he saw Joll again, he asked him how he knows when someone is telling him the truth. Joll replies that after a certain amount of lying and being tortured, “a certain tone enters the voice of a man who is telling the truth.” The magistrate says, from his conversation with the Colonel, he takes away the philosophy that “pain is truth; all else is subject to doubt.”
Joll’s confidence in his ability to perceive a “tone of truth” in the voices of his victims comes across as exceedingly arrogant and exudes a sense of entitlement, as if he had the privileged right to cause people pain in the pursuit of what he thinks to be the truth. The magistrate’s understanding of Joll’s philosophy further shows that the driving force behind Joll’s sense of power and rightful authority in inflicting torture is a fundamental belief that only pain reveals the truth.
The magistrate quotes the report that Colonel Joll gave him regarding the interrogation. With robotic formality and brevity, Joll announces that, as the interrogation proceeded with the barbarian man, contradictions showed up in his testimony, and when confronted with them, the prisoner became violent, attacking the investigative officer. The prisoner was knocked fatally against a wall, and Joll adds that attempts to revive him failed.
The brutish and gruesome nature of Joll’s deeds shockingly contrasts with the conciseness and formal tone of his letter. He does not mention his employment of torture tactics at all, but frames the interrogation as if he had simply had a conversation with the prisoner who was angered solely by Joll’s speech. We can infer that Joll and his men murdered the prisoner.
The magistrate then says he summoned the guard present at the interrogation to make a statement, since it’s required by law. The guard’s comments confirm Joll’s account about the barbarian man’s attack on the investigative officer, and the magistrate asks the guard if Joll told him what to say in his statement—the guard says yes, and the magistrate asks if the prisoner’s hands were tied. The guard says yes to this as well, but instantly corrects himself, denying that the prisoner was bound.
Once again the brooding intimidation of Joll comes to the fore, as he’s even manipulated the magistrate’s own men into keeping his acts in the interrogation room a secret. The guard is noticeably censoring himself under the pressure of being accused by Joll—doing his duty, even when it’s clearly immoral—as demonstrated when he corrects his initial affirmation of the magistrate’s question.
After dismissing the guard, the magistrate visits the granary, where the barbarian boy is still being held. He notices that the body of the boy’s uncle is wrapped up in a sack in the corner, and he asks the guard on duty who told him to leave the body in the room. The guard replies that Colonel Joll ordered him to leave it there, and that Joll had also told the boy to sleep with the man (his corpse) to keep him warm. Further, the guard says that Joll pretended that he was going to sew the boy into the sack with the barbarian man’s corpse.
This guard’s testimony further reveals the grotesque, dehumanizing brutality of Joll’s actions in the interrogation room. Joll’s command that the boy sleep with the dead corpse of his uncle, and threat to sew him up in the body bag, demonstrate that Joll is motivated by other things than the simple pursuit of justice. Joll finds traumatizing, debasing, and defiling the barbarian prisoners to be a spectacle.
The magistrate and the guard then carry the corpse out of the granary into the yard, where the magistrate cuts open the sack holding the body. He notices that the barbarian man’s teeth were all broken, and one of his eyes had been taken from its socket. The magistrate then returns to the boy in the granary, and informs him that he will be interrogated by Joll as well; he advises the boy to tell the truth, as this will prevent him from being harmed—and encourages him that, even if pain is delivered to him, he shouldn’t lose heart.
That the magistrate takes the time to inform the boy about what’s going to happen, and gives him advice about how to avoid physical harm—and to not lose heart if he can’t—demonstrates his fundamental opposition to Joll’s practices. On the side of the prisoner, the magistrate communicates with the boy as if counseling him for the evils about to befall him. Unlike Joll, the magistrate displays empathy to the boy—and yet the magistrate also takes no real action to oppose Joll.
The magistrate then says that he never wanted to become embroiled in such an ugly situation—he just wanted to serve out his days on an uneventful frontier, waiting for retirement. He adds that when he dies, all he hopes to achieve is an obituary comprised of three lines of small print in the Imperial gazette.
Joll’s presence at the settlement has thwarted the ease which the magistrate had hoped would accompany his later years. His humble aspiration for a small obituary will later morph into a grander desire for martyrdom due to Joll’s actions.
The magistrate, however, says that ever since stories began to circulate from the capital about “unrest among the barbarians” last year, the quiet and uneventful life he desired became complicated. But the magistrate claims to have seen nothing in such tales of unrest—that the barbarians had attacked merchants on trade routes, or clashed with border guards, among other things—since he “observed that once in every generation, without fail, there is an episode of hysteria about the barbarians.” He adds that “these dreams are of the consequence of too much ease.”
The magistrate’s insight into the history of the Empire enables him to make connections between the past and the future, such that a pattern is revealed. In this way, his preoccupation with a cyclical dimension of time comes to the surface here, as he’s able to see how the supposedly ‘linear’ history of the Empire actually resembles a circular, self-repeating pattern.
The magistrate then notes that, in the capital, the primary concern was that the northern and western tribes of barbarians were uniting; he says that, in response, the Empire sent reinforcements to the frontier. The magistrate, disappointed that the Empire is caught in another bout of barbarian-hysteria, says that his “easy years” have come to an end. He then remarks that he wished he had simply handed over the two prisoners (the barbarian boy and the barbarian man) to Colonel Joll, and, instead of sticking around and tip-toeing around Joll, that he had left the fort on a hunting trip for several days, only to return to Joll’s report ignorant of what happened, putting his seal on the report without reading it or, if he skimmed it, not knowing the sinister reality behind the “investigations” it cites. But, he concludes, he did not take a vacation, and, hearing noises (the boy screaming) coming from the granary, he decides to go and see for himself what was going on.
At the end of this first chapter the magistrate will claim that it’s important to struggle with and keep in mind the past, even if its history is unpleasant—instead of forgetting and attempting to forge a “fresh start” divorced from the world which preceded it—but here, the magistrate’s wish that he had never been privy to Joll’s activities seems to contradict his commitment to not censoring one’s knowledge of history. This seems to be the conflict he’s dealing with here: to willfully seek out knowledge of a bothersome present, or reserve such energy for uncovering the troubles of a distant past? This conflict will evolve throughout the novel.
The magistrate’s narration shifts to an account of a dream-—later on we realize that this sequence of images is, in fact, a recurring dream of his. In it, he says that he walks across the main square of his fort, and notices a group of children building a snow castle which they’ve crowned with a red flag. He says that he’s aware of his eerie countenance—his largeness and shadowiness—as he approaches the children, who move to the side as he gets close. Yet one child (perhaps not even a child, he says, as she’s older than the others) remains working on the castle, with her hooded back turned to him, undisturbed by his presence. As he stands behind her and watches, she never turns; he adds that he’s unable to imagine her face uncovered by her hood.
This first iteration of the magistrate’s recurring dream sets up the fundamental conflict that will be central to all versions that follow, despite their variations in content. The magistrate’s sense of having a shadowy countenance suggests that he perceives a certain monstrousness to his intentions in approaching the children. This monstrousness, along with his desire but inability to imagine the face of the figure behind the veil of her hood, will later resemble the conflict the magistrate confronts in wanting to possess the barbarian girl and uncover a deeper part of her persona from her opaque surface.
The magistrate’s narration then shifts to his arrival at the granary; he’s decided to investigate what was happening to the barbarian boy since he could no longer ignore the screaming coming from within. The magistrate examines the boy, noticing that his belly and groins are “pocked with little scabs and bruises and cuts,” and he asks the guard what his interrogators did to him. The guard replies that Joll (and presumably another interrogator) took a small knife and made shallow punctures in the boy’s skin, turning the knife, like a key, left and right inside the flesh.
This scene reveals another one of Joll’s sickeningly brutal acts of mutilation, just one more in a series that is far from over. Coetzee’s description of the injuries are gut-wrenching, as they convey an innocent child’s body left in the ruins of his former life, shattered by Joll’s violence. Here, we see what the madness of Joll’s philosophy about pain and truth can make him feel entitled to commit.
The magistrate then wakes the barbarian boy up, and tells him that he’s been having a bad dream. The magistrate says that he’s been informed of the boy’s confession—that he and the old man, along with other’s from his clan, have stolen sheep and horses, and that the men from his clan are arming themselves in preparation for a war against the Empire. He then asks the boy if he’s telling the truth—if he understands what such a confession will mean: that soldiers of the Empire will ride out against and kill his kinsmen. The boy, however, doesn’t respond; the magistrate shakes him and slaps his cheek, but it’s “like slapping dead flesh,” he says.
The magistrate again consults with the barbarian boy in private, behind Joll’s back, demonstrating his concern and empathy. Knowing that Joll only measures truth by suffering, and that such a method only leads his victims to concoct whatever information he’s seeking in order to stop the application of unbearable pain, the magistrate wants to confirm that the boy hasn’t just made his story up to appease Joll, and to inform him of the consequences of his confession.
The magistrate then says that he called in the only doctor at the fort to tend to the barbarian boy; the doctor puts “ointment on the hundred little scabs,” and says that, within a week, he’ll be able to walk. However, Colonel Joll, the magistrate adds, is impatient, as he wants to quickly launch a raid on the barbarians and take more prisoners, using the boy as a guide. Joll asks the magistrate to release thirty soldiers (out of forty) from his garrison to the campaign, and to supply horses. But the magistrate tries to dissuade him, arguing that, while he doesn’t mean any disrespect, Joll is unfit to embark on such a campaign: he’s not a professional soldier, and is unfamiliar with the territory. Further, since the boy is terrified of Joll, he will be a poor guide, saying things only to please Joll and avoid more torture. In addition, the magistrate says that the boy is simply unfit for travel. The magistrate concludes that the barbarians, having lived in the desert their whole lives, will easily outmaneuver Joll’s company.
The magistrate’s willingness to confront Joll about his unfitness for the expedition, even though he goes about it with a reserved professionalism, shows that he’s now fundamentally opposed to the colonel’s agenda at large. The magistrate also now sees through what he once viewed as the eminence and skill of those who hail from the Third Bureau, and finds Joll fundamentally incompetent as a leader. The magistrate also hints at the flaw in Joll’s philosophy about the relationship between pain and truth but pointing out that the boy will only say things in the interest of avoiding further torture at Joll’s hands, pointing to the fact that Joll’s use of pain manufactures appeasement, not truth.
While Joll hears the magistrate out, the magistrate thinks that the Colonel is leading him on a little, and suspects that his dissenting advice will be noted down by Joll later, with a mention that the magistrate is “unsound.” Joll ultimately rejects the magistrate’s concerns, saying that he has “a commission to fulfill,” and that he “can only judge when [his] work is completed.”
In the face of Joll’s Bureau-issued authority, the magistrate’s opinions, however sane, are insignificant scraps—and his suspicion of being labeled “unsound” highlights the fact that, no matter how much the magistrate is in the right, his sense of what’s most sensible or just will always be viewed as hysterical or reactionary if it contrasts with Joll’s.
The magistrate notes that Colonel Joll and his company of soldiers begin to make preparations for their trip, and says that he again approached Joll—this time attempting to see just what, exactly, Joll intends to achieve with his campaign. The Colonel responds that he will not commit himself to any single course beforehand, but assures the magistrate that, “broadly speaking,” he will locate the nomads’ camp and “proceed further as the situation dictates.”
Joll’s supposed restraint here in refraining from adopting any single course ironically contrasts with the way he approaches torture, where Joll assumes that pain equals the truth, and that his victims are guilty and withholding answers to the questions he’s designed beforehand. Because Joll’s expedition is informed by the ‘truth’ sought through the agenda of his interrogations, it’s already based upon a single course from the start.
The magistrate notes that, since Joll’s second day at his fort, he’s been too upset by Joll’s presence to be anything more than obligatorily cordial to him. He says that he wonders if the Colonel has a “private ritual of purification” which he performs after every time he tortures someone, “to enable him to return and break bread with other men.” Or, the magistrate proposes, “has the Bureau created new men who can pass without disquiet between the unclean and the clean?”
How, the magistrate wonders, can Joll commit such atrocious acts against his torture victims and then return to the normal affairs of everyday experience without being weighed down by a traumatic remorse and disgust? Mustn’t Joll feel the need to somehow wash his scenes of torture away from his conscience? The magistrate’s interest in this kind of “purification ritual” will crop up again later as well.
The magistrate says that, later that night, he dreams of a body lying on its back, with “a wealth of pubic hair glistening . . . across the belly, up the loins, and down like an arrow into the furrow of the legs.” He says that when he tries to brush the hair with his hand, the body writhes, and he realizes that what he thought was hair is actually a dense heap of bees.
This version of the magistrate’s reoccurring dream might be read as an experience of horror at perceiving the body of another to be alien and frightening—a kind of subconscious translation of some of the novel’s themes of “othering,” inhumanity, and sexuality.
The magistrate then says that his last act of courtesy to Colonel Joll is to ride out with him and his company of soldiers for a certain distance. He describes the company of men as hungover and unenthused, and notes that the prisoner—the barbarian boy Joll tortured and is using as a guide—looks still very much pained by his wounds. As the magistrate rides back alone to the fort, he says that he’s relieved to be back in a world he knows and understands.
The departure of Joll signifies for the magistrate the return of his old, familiar world—a settlement returned to peace and no longer smothered by the corrupt military interests of the capital. Put another way, this perceived return to “normal” also means a reversion to a cyclical view of time after the interruption of a violently linear kind of “history.”
As the magistrate is returning to the fort, he passes a cluster of sand dunes in the distance, and remarks about how such dunes cover the ruins of houses that date back to times “before the western provinces were annexed and the fort was built.” He says that he enjoys excavating the ruins, adding that he sometimes sentences offenders of petty crimes to dig at the dunes, or even hires casual labor with his own money. The magistrate then mentions that he’s discovered pieces of wood and pottery “slips” (a ceramic technique) painted with a peculiar script in the ruins, and that he’s bent on deciphering the language; he goes on something of a rant about his obsession with determining how the slips are all related. Are they some sort of mathematical puzzle that, when cracked, reveals a map of the barbarians’ land in ancient times?
The magistrate’s fascination with ruins which pre-date the establishment of the Empire’s western provinces and his own settlement reflects his (later developed) philosophy around history and the past—that he prefers to struggle and tarry with the past instead of trying to forget and repress it in order to forge a new start or take a wholly linear view of history. The magistrate sees at once a miracle and a suffering in the past—he sees the possibility of a truth waiting to be deciphered in the slips, but, when looking to the past, he also sees the self-repeating pattern of the barbarians suffering at the hands of the Empire (or past “barbarians” suffering at the hands of past versions of the “Empire”).
The magistrate then describes how, one evening, heeding the rumors of children, he went out to the ruins at the hour when, supposedly, ghosts awaken. He says that after waiting for an hour, he had no luck, and gave up trying to observe the paranormal. The magistrate adds that, as he left the ruins, he felt ridiculous—he suddenly became embarrassingly aware of how he tries to fill the boring emptiness of the desert with a “special historical poignancy.”
The magistrate’s desire to uncover a profound history in the desolate environment around him leads him to such extremes as believing in the supernatural. This fantasy element of the magistrate’s interest in history suggests that it largely serves as a distraction from what he more viscerally feels to be a lack of meaning in the world around him, instead of an avenue for purely intellectual research.
The magistrate’s narration then shifts to the fourth day after Colonel Joll’s campaign has departed, and he says that the first of his prisoners have arrived. Infuriated at their detainment, the magistrate questions the leading soldier—how can he explain the arrest of “fishing people” (those who live near the settlement but are not considered “barbarians”)? But the officer simply hands the magistrate a letter from Joll, asking the magistrate to “hold these and succeeding detainees incommunicado for my return.” After calling Joll ridiculous in front of the soldiers, the magistrate reluctantly orders the barracks guards to bring the prisoners into the courtyard. Further, when he asks the men why Joll wanted the prisoners brought back to his fort—why he couldn’t ask him his questions out on the field—a soldier responds that none of them could speak their language.
The soldier’s response—that the prisoners were sent back to the magistrate’s settlement because of a communication issue—comes across as odd. Why, if no one on the expeditionary force can speak the barbarians’ language, including Joll, would sending them back to the settlement help? Joll didn’t employ a special translator at the settlement before, and even denied the magistrate’s offer to help with translation. It seems that Joll’s main priority is the imprisonment and torture of any inhabitants of the frontier, including the fishing people, in order to assert the Empire’s power and dominance.
After a couple of days pass, the magistrate notes that the prisoners “seem to forget they ever had another home,” as they are “seduced” by the free and ample supply of food. He describes their habits as “frank and filthy,” as they’ve turned one corner of the yard into a latrine where both men and women unabashedly do their business out in the open. He adds that there are no children in the group except a mother’s baby and a little boy, and says that he hopes that there were other children who escaped from the soldiers. Further, the magistrate says that he hopes that, when the prisoners return home, the history of their captors becomes part of their peoples’ oral history, but he also hopes that their memories of the town—with its laid back way of life and exotic food—don’t lure them back, since he doesn’t want a “race of beggars” on his hands.
The magistrate’s support of the barbarians continues to be evidenced here, with his claim that he hopes the history of their captors will become part of their oral history. The magistrate explicitly avows that the barbarians never forget the cruelty of the Empire—that the ugliness of the Empire might therefore always have a place in history, since it will always be remembered. This reflects the magistrate’s belief that, unlike the attempts of men like Joll to forge “fresh starts,” the past should always be kept at hand, even when it harms the image of the Empire.
The magistrate notes that after a few days of the “barbarians’” captivity, he and the guards begin to lose sympathy for them, annoyed by the filth and smell of the space they occupy, as well as the noise they make arguing and coughing. He adds that a rumor starts to circulate that they are diseased, and will infect the town. Finally fed up, the magistrate writes a letter to the Third Bureau denouncing Colonel Joll, but rips it up.
Even though the magistrate has a lot of compassion for the barbarians, he still is irritated by the lack of hygiene which plagues them for reasons out of their control. The barbarians’ inability to maintain proper hygiene is the fault of their captors’, yet the townspeople’s racism leads them to frame their unsanitary state as an infection they innately possess as barbarians.
Then, in the middle of the night, Colonel Joll returns. The magistrate looks upon Joll’s company of men with dread: they’ve brought back a group of prisoners roped together by the neck. Dismayed, the magistrate returns to his room, and again expresses his irritation at the noises coming from the prison yard below. He says that he feels old and tired, and that all he wants to do is sleep—but he adds that sleep is no longer rejuvenating for him. It’s rather “an oblivion, a nightly brush with annihilation.” Living in his apartment at the barracks, he concludes, has been bad for him—he should have decided to live in the magistrate’s villa, located on the quietest street in town. This would have enabled him to avoid the irritations and miseries of the prisoners. But, he adds, he now knows too much: he’s been irreparably infected with the knowledge of the barbarians’ plight and the army’s involvement in it.
The magistrate’s conflict between his conviction that the truth of history should be tarried with and his disappointment in the disappearance of innocence, tranquility, and ease in his life at the settlement reappears. Having lost the ideal, peaceful atmosphere that he always imagined would pervade his later years of service to the Empire, he regrets having put himself in a position of being privy to the suffering of Joll’s prisoners. In this way Coetzee subtly criticizes the magistrate—he sees the inhumanity of the Empire’s actions, but doesn’t yet take direct action to fight these wrongs in a way that truly inconveniences himself. Instead, he just wishes he could return to his life of blissful ignorance.
After Colonel Joll takes a day to rest, he begins his interrogations. The magistrate mentions that, though he once thought Joll lazy, he now sees that the Colonel is tireless in his “quest for the truth.” The magistrate notes that the interrogations began in the morning, and were still going on when he returned after dark. Everybody, including the little boy, is questioned, and the magistrate says that, as he sits in his rooms trying to read, he strains his ears “to hear or not to hear sounds of violence.” Finally, at midnight, the interrogations stop.
It seems that the magistrate’s initial doubts about Joll’s commitment to his interrogation techniques—his belief that people like Joll must have some sort of ritual of purification they perform after inflicting torture—don’t reflect the gruesome truth of Joll’s psychology. Joll is able to torture his prisoners from morning to midnight, without having to take a break. It’s as if Joll lives for this, and sees nothing “inhuman” about it.
The magistrate then says that the joy has gone from his life. He spends the day “playing with lists and numbers, stretching petty tasks to fill the hours.” After dinner at the inn, reluctant to go home, he goes upstairs to a section where a group of prostitutes works. He sleeps with one girl in particular, and when he wakes up, he finds her lying on the floor. When he asks her why she’s sleeping there, she tells him that he was tossing in his sleep, and that he told her to go away. She tells the magistrate not to worry about it, and he says that he’d like to sleep in the room with her again the next day. He mentions how it occurs to him that, no matter what he says to her, the girl at the inn will hear it with sympathy and kindness.
Having been infected with “too much knowledge” about the evil of Joll and the suffering of the barbarian prisoners, the magistrate can no longer return to the (ignorant) joy which this knowledge has destroyed. Only sexual release, it seems, can provide a bout of relief from the anxiety that’s flooded his life, and the girl at the inn’s kindness—even though it’s probably an act—provides an escape into a momentary antidote of delight, even if it’s a fantasy.
The magistrate’s narration then goes directly to the next night with the girl at the inn, and he says that he awakes to find her on the floor again. She laughs at his worried reaction, and tells him that he pushed her out of bed with his hands and feet, asking him not to get upset, since “we cannot help our dreams or what we do in our sleep.” The magistrate then says that he’s known the girl for a year, sometimes visiting her twice a week, adding that he feels a “quiet affection for her which is perhaps the best that can be hoped for between an aging man and a girl of twenty.” He tries to remember what nightmare makes him push her away, but he can’t recall anything.
Even though the girl at the inn provides the magistrate with a superficial form of escape—with her sense of delight and enthusiasm in sleeping with him, which is most likely an act—the presence of nightmares, two nights in a row now, suggests that the anxiety which has overtaken his daytime life still haunts him during these nighttime trysts (as well as his anxiety about his own aging). That the magistrate pushes the girl off the bed during his nightmares perhaps symbolizes his uncertainty around whether resorting to such nightly fantasies is an unethical attempt to escape the truth.
The magistrate describes a meeting he has with Joll in his office back at the barracks. Wearing his “dark eyeshades” indoors, Joll tells the magistrate that he’s leaving, that he’s completed his “inquiries” for now. Wanting to dig into Joll a bit, the magistrate sarcastically (but in a passably sincere tone) asks him if his inquiries among the barbarians have been as successful as he had hoped. When Joll answers affirmatively, the magistrate presses further, asking if he can say whether “we have anything to fear? Can we rest securely at night?” The magistrate notes a slight smile form on Joll’s lips, and, without responding, the Colonel bows and leaves.
The magistrate’s contempt for Joll continues to surface here, as he subtly condescends to the colonel, pushing against his intimidating presence. Joll’s insistence on wearing his sunglasses indoors further emphasizes his desire to remain inscrutable to others, and his need to filter the reality of his impact on the environment around him—his commitment to pursuing the “darkness” of his agenda above anything else, even if it distorts the truth.
The first thing the magistrate does after Joll’s departure is to release the prisoners back into the yard. When he opens the door to the hall where they’ve been kept, he’s overwhelmed by an influx of foul odors, and he shouts at the guards to start cleaning. He mentions that, as the prisoners emerge into the daylight, they shield their eyes, and one woman in particular has to be helped—though she is young, she constantly shakes like an elderly person. Further, he says that it’d be best if this “obscure chapter in the history of the world” could be erased from the face of the earth. He fantasizes about marching the prisoners out into the desert to bury them (alive, presumably), in order to erase their memory and gain a fresh start. But that won’t be his way, he says, since he—unlike the “new men of Empire”—struggles with the past, hoping that, before its story is finished, it will reveal to him why he took the trouble to endure it—why it was worth it in the first place. He orders that the prisoners be fed and that the doctor attend to them.
Here the magistrate officially announces his philosophy, going against men like Joll, that the past should be struggled with, and the truth of its story exposed in full. Further, that the prisoners shield their eyes when they enter the daylight subtly references the recurring theme of blindness. Whereas Joll blocks the light out—and, metaphorically, lives in the darkness of his deeds—the prisoners, having been sucked into Joll’s dark world, emerge to the day as newly-made strangers to the light. The barbarian girl especially has been estranged from the light by Joll—her new, literal blindness, in a way, is an effect of the blinders Joll puts up to the truth of the world around him. The prisoners’ struggle to enter the daylight of their world post-torture reflects the magistrate’s own encounter with his life newly disfigured by Joll.