The fifth chapter begins with the magistrate describing the hysterical gossip about the barbarians which has overtaken the fort. The barbarians, people say, have dug a tunnel under the walls of the fort, and the townsfolk are convinced that they’re always prowling about waiting to murder, rape, steal, and pillage. Further, a little girl in the town was apparently raped by a barbarian—recognized as a barbarian because of his ugliness. The magistrate adds that it’s been a long time since the second expeditionary force rode out against the barbarians. He says that, among the small group of soldiers left behind, there is a level of alcohol consumption and disrespect towards the townspeople which he’s never witnessed before. The soldiers will go into shops and take what they want without paying. And, while Mandel promises to take charge of and enforce order among his soldiers (since he’s in charge while Joll’s away) he fails to ultimately act.
The brutish incivility among the purportedly civilized members of the Empire’s army continues to be exposed as they pillage the very people they’re supposed to be protecting, all while Mandel allows it to happen. Ironically, instead of being terrified of the soldiers who are mostly involved in causing them harm (and inflicting all the “savagery” the barbarians are accused of), the townspeople prefer to spend their time worrying about myths of barbarians sneaking into their town. This just provides yet another example of how the settler’s anti-barbarian ideology prevents them from accurately assessing the flawed state of their very own society.
The magistrate says that he lives in a corner of the barracks yard, more disgraced than ever, having “lost his last vestige of authority the day he spent hanging from a tree in a woman’s underclothes,” and who had to lick up his food for a week, having lost the use of his hands. He says that there’s also been an influx of refugees to the town—fisherfolk from outlying settlements along the river. While at first the townsfolk were sympathetic to them, after several occurrences (their building of thatched shelters along the wall of the town square, their thieving children and sheep-killing dogs) feelings towards them have changed.
This is perhaps the lowest point of bestial disgrace which the magistrate reaches in the novel, marking his transformation from a respected civil authority to a tortured, debased prisoner who is forced to eat like a dog. Further, the townspeople’s ultimate lack of sympathy towards the fisherfolk suggests that they will eventually begin to lump them in the same category as the barbarians they despise, as we see later in the novel.
One day, the magistrate says, Mandel approaches him in the yard and says that the expenditures to keep him as a prisoner cannot go on forever. When asked when he’s going to start working for his keep, the magistrate responds by saying that, as a prisoner awaiting trial, he’s not required to work. Mandel, however, says that the magistrate is not a prisoner, and that he’s free to go as he pleases. As the magistrate goes to leave, he asks Mandel, “how do you find it possible to eat afterwards, after you have been [torturing] people?” Mandel tries to evade the question, but the magistrate persists, trying to insist that he doesn’t mean it to be sarcastic, but that, as a fellow civil devotee to the law, he wants to try and understand how someone like Mandel could bear to perform his duty and stand to live. Mandel is incredibly angered, and calls the magistrate a bastard, telling him to “go and die somewhere.”
Here, the magistrate obviously strikes a nerve with Mandel, as the magistrate once again speculates about the necessity for people like him and Joll to perform rituals of cleansing after they torture their victims. It seems as if the magistrate is actually being sincere with his question, and not sarcastic, yet his willingness to ask it after just having been released by Mandel is still just as bold. Once again, the magistrate seems unconcerned with raising Mandel’s temper, which very well could get the magistrate rearrested, demonstrating his fundamental concern with trying to get at the truth of things—this time the psychology of the torturer.
The magistrate says that, with his new freedom, he cannot hide from anyone—he’s constantly on view in the town square. Gradually, he adds, the townsfolk start to soften up to him, and realize that “the old magistrate has taken his knocks and come through.” As he’s walking the streets one day, the magistrate encounters Mai, “the quartermaster’s plump wife,” and she invites him in for tea and biscuits. She sympathizes with all the hardships he’s gone through, and mentions that there was never such commotion when he was in charge as there is now. As the magistrate rambles about how he became a fool in love over the barbarian girl—that it was simply common sense to return her to her family—she “listens to these half-truths, nodding, watching me like a hawk.”
The magistrate’s conversation with Mai suggests that the magistrate’s reputation has not been too damaged by the men in power—Mandel and Joll’s charge of treason against the magistrate, despite the power they have to manufacture their own narratives of truth, hasn’t tarnished the magistrate’s ability to be reintegrated with society. Further, his comments about “half-truths” implies that he feels the need to censor his story a bit in order to paint a more innocent (or at least coherent) picture of himself.
The magistrate says that he now sings (begs) for his keep, and can usually get the maids from the barracks to feed him leftovers from the soldier’s dinners. In the mornings, he’ll visit Mai at the inn as she cooks, just to “breathe in all the good smells.” She tells him that many people have left the town, afraid of the barbarian threat, and that it’s becoming a rougher road to travel each day—if you want to leave—with the approach of winter. The magistrate tells Mai that, he realizes, “I disappeared and then reappeared, and in between was not part of the world.”
The magistrate’s comment about disappearing and reappearing testifies to just how great a disconnection he feels between his life pre- and post-imprisonment. It’s as if his own personal history—as a free human being integrated in society—was ruptured by a void where he became less than human, and therefore no longer a part of the narrative tract of his normal life.
The magistrate is rather forthright about his sexuality with Mai, saying how in prison he only thought about food—not women. He even mentions the girl at the inn, wondering why he is confessing all this, but then he realizes that when he first encountered his tormentors, his philosophy was “let everything be said,” and that this is having an influence on the way he speaks now. Further, the magistrate’s narration goes on about how food is the thing he craves the most, and how he can use his powers of flattery to get special meals. He says that he wants to be fat again—“fatter than ever before.”
That the magistrate feels compelled to confess his most intimately personal details to Mai, and cites his tormentors as the cause of this compulsion, shows how torture has perhaps permanently changed his psychology. Whereas, when he formerly held office, he had to uphold a certain level of civilized decorum as a civil servant, his dehumanization at the hands of Mandel has eroded that layer of his personality.
The magistrate says that it’s been almost three months since the second expeditionary force departed—and there’s been no news about its progress. Instead, he says horrible rumors abound about its possible failures. Every week, a “convoy of the prudent” leave the town to head east towards the capital, supposedly to “visit relatives till things settle down again.” Soon after the families leave their houses, the fort’s soldiers loot and vandalize them. Also, those who are perceived to be preparing to leave the town are subject to public insult and robbery. The magistrate says that the soldiers “tyrannize” the town, having held a torch-lit meeting at the center of the settlement condemning those who wish to leave, and the slogan “WE STAY” has become popular among those who consider themselves to be faithful. He also mentions that he was present during the night of the meeting, and says that it turned into a march that ended up setting a house on fire. He concludes that Mandel has utterly lost control of the garrison—he was nowhere in sight during the march.
The magistrate’s settlement is falling into utter shambles—the purported civility and reason of the Empire’s society is fracturing into social disorder and a frenzied barbarism beneath, as the town divides into those who are either faithful or unfaithful to the settlement itself. The townspeople are exposed as being not at all united by a higher devotion to the Empire as a nation or bastion of civilization, but as torn and separated to the extent that the “faithful” commit crimes against those who wish to leave. Further, Mandel’s lack of control over the troops either attests to his lack of leadership prowess in comparison to the magistrate, or perhaps that he’s on the side of his tyrannical soldiers.
The magistrate, continuing to discuss the soldiers’ new sense of power, mentions that they are fawned-upon by the citizens, who host a weekly levy in order to fund a feast for them. The more the soldiers are pampered, he says, the less reliable they become. The magistrate then discusses walking from town to the lakeside. He says that he’s deeply familiar with this road—he’s walked it by night ever since he was a child—and has no desire to leave the settlement, like the many families who have. “How,” he says, “can I believe that the night is full of the flitting shadows of the barbarians?”
The magistrate still expresses no fear of the barbarians, as evidenced by his willingness to remain at the settlement and to walk along the road at night—it may also be that he knows the real threat to his safety would be the soldiers of the Empire, not the barbarians (who perhaps aren’t even present). Even though the citizens are being cheated and tyrannized by the soldiers, they nonetheless cater to their every whim, fearing them less than the phantom barbarian threat.
Continuing down the road, the magistrate eventually begins to wade into an expanse of marshland, and fantasizes about joining the fisherfolk as a member of their village, having a romantic conception of their lifestyle. As he wades further into the water, the magistrate realizes that his daydreaming about becoming a fisherman represents the very mode of thinking engrained in the minds of adult citizens of the Empire: “dreams of ends . . . not of how to live but of how to die.” Children, he says, never doubt that the trees they play under are everlasting, or the prospect of one day growing to be as strong and/or fertile as their parents—they never doubt that there is a continuity to life, or that their hopes for the future are guaranteed, and almost ordained by nature itself. They live in a kind of time that the Empire bars its adult citizens from living out. The Empire has “made it impossible for us to live in time like fish in water, like birds in air, like children,” the magistrate says.
One of the most important scenes in the novel, the magistrate meditates here most clearly on his conception of two distinct dimensions of time—the cyclical time of the seasons, and the linear time of human history (particularly that of civilizations like the Empire). The magistrate attributes the tendency to think in terms of cyclic time to a natural, pre-adolescent state which gets distorted in adulthood by a form of linear thinking, a way of thinking that’s caught up in beginnings and ends, not the “everlasting.” Instead of being surrounded by a world that’s steeped in time in every direction, such that there’s no sense of a beginning or end, adults in the Empire come to see the world as sequenced on a line from past to future.
The Empire, the magistrate continues, lives its existence out in the “jagged time of rise and fall.” Concerned with starting and ending things, with success and catastrophe, and not in the “smooth recurrent spinning time” of the seasons, the Empire ruthlessly plots to maintain and reproduce itself—and not to give itself up to the flux of the moment. The magistrate says that he is infected by this virus of thought, propagated by the Empire, no less than Colonel Joll is. Even though their priorities in life are drastically different, they are nonetheless equally subject to thinking about time in terms of beginning and end.
Even though Joll is significantly less moral than the magistrate, it seems that the magistrate is saying here that everyone in the Empire who grows old enough eventually gets corrupted by the distorted way of thinking which structures its plot of preservation and reproduction. It’s as if there’s something inherently evil about this way of thinking, in how it reorders the world to repress its natural state—every member of the Empire therefore automatically props up the evil structure which preserves its existence through the very way they think.
The magistrate, finding his way back to dry land, falls asleep. Later he wakes up and makes his way down the road to the fisherman’s camp, when a dog starts barking. Suddenly, the “night bursts out in a clamour of barking, shouts of alarm, screams.” Fearful that he has startled the entire town, he tries to shout out “It is nothing!” but isn’t heard. Someone runs past him, and a woman whom the magistrate says he “knows at once” pummels into him, but she gets away from his grasp and runs past him. Then the sound of trumpets comes, and the magistrate slowly makes his way into the camp, and enters a hut.
Even the fishing camp villagers, who barely resemble the settlers at the frontier and who were furthermore shunned by them, have bought into the settlement’s barbarian frenzy, and descend into havoc at the slightest bark of a dog. Even though the possibility of a barbarian invasion is real, this scene just shows how the settlement has dragged the fishing people into its own mess—how, through its fear of the barbarians, it’s spread it to the surrounding regions.
In the hut, the magistrate says that he would like to fall asleep, but his impact with the girl has unsettled him. He is wary that he will follow, in the morning, his sexual urges to investigate who, in fact, the girl—a woman or child, he says—ran into him, in order to “build upon her . . . an even more ridiculous erotic adventure.” Thus the magistrate says that, even for men of his age, there’s no cap on one’s foolishness. He says that the only excuse men of his age and erotic nature have is that “we leave no mark of our own on the girls who pass through our hands”—that those they engage sexually can “shrug off” whatever they offer. He continues with this theme, wondering if, when he would engage in his massaging rituals with the barbarian girl, all he really wanted to do was “engrave” himself on her in a very deep manner, and if, indeed, his inability to do so was what caused him the anxiety he felt.
This is an incredibly pivotal moment in the magistrate’s narration, where for the first time since his imprisonment, he gains more insight into his relationship with the barbarian girl. Whereas with most women he sleeps with he feels no urge to leave any mark of himself on them—which is the only way he can justify engaging them at his age—with the barbarian girl, there was perhaps a rarer impulse to inscribe himself upon her, to make her persona in some way conform to the imprint of, and reflect back, his very own. Though before the magistrate always accused himself of trying to unearth the meaning of the girl’s scars, perhaps he was rather trying to ‘scar’ her with something of himself.
Continuing on his tangent about the barbarian girl, the magistrate says that she will be forever marked “for life as the property of a stranger,” and that no one will ever engage her with the same sexual pity with which he did. He thinks that if she had only spoken up and told the magistrate that, if he wanted to learn how to torture her, he should simply ask his “friend with the black eyes,” Joll—and if he “had been in a position to understand her,” he “might have saved [him]self from a year of confused and futile gestures of expiation.”
Though it’s marked with a certain cruelty towards the barbarian girl, the magistrate achieves here the fullest sense of understanding and closure about their relationship thus far. Whereas before, he was troubled with himself for emulating Joll’s probing quest for truth in his approach to the girl, now the magistrate thinks that, though he wasn’t in a position to understand the girl, she could have nevertheless been more communicative with him.
Presumably falling asleep in the hut, the magistrate experiences yet again his recurring dream. He dreams that he’s heading towards the barbarian girl in the same snow-laden town square. While he walks towards her at first, he starts to fly as the wind picks up. Yet as he swoops down towards her, he’s afraid that she won’t turn around to see him in time, and so he tries to yell out to her and warn her. Unable to pierce the wind with his sound, he comes upon her bracing himself for impact—but, at just the last moment, she turns and sees him. “For an instant,” he says, “I have a vision of her face . . . glowing, healthy, smiling on me,” just before the two make impact. The girl’s head hits the magistrate right in the stomach, propelling him beyond her, but he says that the bump is “as faint as the stroke of a moth.” He realizes that because the impact was so light, he needn’t have been so anxious in the first place. When he tries to look back, all he can see is a wall of snow.
This version of the magistrate’s dream reflects his previous thoughts on his desire to “engrave” himself upon the barbarian girl. While the magistrate’s wind-powered flight might represent the intense momentum of his sexual drive towards her, compiled with his drive to uncover a hidden depth within her and leave a mark there, the fact that he’s unable to warn her reflects his feeling of lacking control over his own sexuality. When she turns around, the hidden face (or depth) he’s anticipated is eclipsed with her reality, as his expected impact becomes a soft brush. This shows how the magistrate’s anxiety was truly the product of the face, the hidden depth, he invented for her. And the snow-wall shows his memory’s inability to retain his first impression of her.
The magistrate awakes and his mouth is wet with kisses—a dog has been licking his face. He exits the hut and walks up to the northwest watchtower of the settlement, and then back down the road towards the lakeside again. He encounters a boy urinating in the middle of the path, who looks up at him, startled, and runs away to hide in the reeds. But the magistrate tells him that he can come out—there being nothing to be afraid of. Yet turning back to the fishing town, he notes that the gates are open, and sees heavily armed soldiers peeking into the huts of the fisherfolk. Apparently suspicious of the commotion that occurred the night before, the soldiers start to deface and wreck parts of the village. Trying to plead with them, the magistrate informs a man trying to destroy a thatched hut that he was the cause of the commotion—that he inadvertently scared the villagers while out on a walk, and that they don’t deserve to be punished for fleeing down the river worried that the barbarians might be upon them.
The soldiers’ behavior has become utterly belligerent, reckless, and abusive. Even worse than stealing from people at the settlement, their impulse to harm the huts of the innocent fishing people is just a pure, unthinking pleasure-drive for destruction. Not only were the refugees from the fishing village unwelcome in the settlement, now the very homes they returned to are being wrecked. It’s as if the soldiers are so bored waiting for the return of Joll’s group or “waiting for the barbarians” that they jump at the first opportunity to spring into action. Also, that the little boy runs from the magistrate suggests that he suspects he’s a barbarian—which speaks to how much the magistrate’s appearance has changed since the beginning of the novel.
The soldier and his fellows, however, do not heed the magistrate’s words, and continue on their path of destruction. They snap the roof off a hut they’ve gathered around, and tell the magistrate to “fuck off” and “go and die somewhere.” When the roof of the hut snaps up, a soldier who had climbed atop it falls through to the ground, and as his fellows look on in laughter, he complains: “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit! It’s not funny. I’ve hurt my fucking thumb! It’s sore!” Belligerently, he accuses the fisherfolk of being savages, and says that the Empire should have “lined them up against a wall and shot them long ago—with their friends!” The soldier, ignoring the magistrate, storms off.
The fact that the soldiers feel no compulsion to obey the magistrate demonstrates how he’s entirely in the shadow of his former authority, usurped by the “new men of Empire.” Further, the soldier’s reaction to his hurt thumb is humorously overexaggerated and infantile, which contrasts with the aggressive and brutish personas the soldiers have taken on. The soldier’s casual mention of execution based solely on perceived “savagery” is also chilling, considering the free reign the soldiers are given in the town.
Standing back in the road, the magistrate waits for his anger to subside, and he recalls an instance from the days when he had jurisdiction over the main settlement. A boy who had been charged with stealing chickens and sentenced to three years of army service tried to desert his post after a month. Caught and brought before the magistrate, the boy said that he only wanted to be able to see his mother and sisters again, but the magistrate told him that, being “fallen creatures” who are wholly subject to the law, “we cannot do as we wish.” At that time, the magistrate believed that every person had the capacity to know what was and was not just at every moment—that “all creatures come into the world bringing with them the memory of justice.”
When the magistrate says that at one point he believed every person could discern at any instant what was and was not just, it implies that he no longer holds this view—that the soldiers and Joll and Mandel have changed his mind. Further, his old belief reflects his conception of the cyclic dimension of time, which he thinks children are born into but later pulled out of by adulthood. To be able to enter the world with a memory—of justice—and to see at every point in time what does and does not reflect that memory, would be to measure justice not in terms of a beginning or end, but to compare all instants of time to a primordial impression.
The magistrate says that he remembers feeling ill at ease on days where he would have to make such strict decisions, entertaining the idea that, though “some men suffer unjustly, it is the fate of those who witness their suffering to suffer the shame of it.” He concludes that, while he had considered resigning from his post as magistrate multiple times, he always rejected doing so, knowing that someone else would just be vested with the “shame of office,” therefore not really changing anything.
That the magistrate never went through with resigning from his post because the shame of office would simply be displaced onto someone else reflects his philosophy of how the dimension of cyclic time plays a role in the realm of human history—how history is a self-repeating pattern. Leaving office would not change the pattern of the “shame” of the office itself from repeating.
The magistrate says that two horsemen, less than a mile away, have been spotted crossing the bare fields towards the settlement. Though some of the townsfolk gather in celebration, something seems wrong. One of the horsemen, who’s been riding shoulder to shoulder with the other, suddenly cuts off towards the lakeside. The remaining horseman, however, continues to gallop towards the settlement—and as he gets closer, the magistrate sees that he’s dead (and he’s been so for several days). He’ a soldier of the Empire who’s been fixed to wooden planks to keep him upright on the horse—a taunting trick by the barbarians. With no one else willing to perform the duty, the magistrate gathers the reigns of the errant horse and brings the dead soldier back to the settlement’s gates.
This horrifying scene is the first tangible sign of the barbarians actually being near the settlement. Sending the dead soldier back to the town is haunting indicator that Joll’s forces have perished, and that the Empire shouldn’t dare to send any more for its own sake, since they’ll always flounder on foreign territory. It seems unlikely that the barbarians would bother to attack the settlement at this point, which gives the title a hugely ironic tone. Throughout their campaign, the military created the sense of waiting for something that would never have bothered to come in the first place, and which probably never will.
The magistrate then says that this event confirms every premonition of danger among the townspeople, adding that “true panic overtakes the town.” Some families, he says, shut themselves up in their houses, and the school has closed. Further, he mentions a rumor that a substantial group of barbarians has made camp only a few miles away from the burnt river-banks, and that an attack on the garrison is therefore inevitable and imminent. The magistrate comments: “the unthinkable has occurred: the army that marched forth so gaily three months ago will never return.”
The magistrate’s comment that “the unthinkable has occurred” highlights the irony and hypocrisy of the Empire’s supposed prowess as an advanced, civilized society. The military campaign has utterly failed its mission—to rid the frontier of its native, “primitive,” “barbaric” people, and the proud stature of the Empire as an able defender of its settlements will perhaps never be regained.
The magistrate begs the gatekeeper of the garrison to allow the fisherfolk back inside their establishment, since they’re afraid for their lives. But the guard ignores him. Then, one night, as the magistrate is on his way back to the granary shed—where he sleeps—he encounters a line of horse-drawn carriages, packed with supplies, making way to pass out of the settlement. He notes that the townspeople “emerge from their houses and stand quietly by watching this evidently long-planned manoeuvre of withdrawal,” and he asks to meet with Officer Mandel to interview him about what’s going on, but the guard on watch at the courthouse brushes him off.
It appears that Mandel and his men have decided to betray the townspeople even more deeply. Despite their efforts to pamper the soldiers and provide them with luxurious feasts, the settlers have inspired no real sense of responsibility in the soldiers, who now reach a new level of hypocrisy after supporting the settlement’s campaign “WE STAY.” The Empire’s military force has given up entirely on the citizens it was supposed to protect.
Returning from the courthouse to the town square, the magistrate finds Mandel reading a statement announcing the “temporary” withdrawal of the majority of soldiers stationed at the garrison—though a “caretaker force,” he says, will be left behind. There is also going to be an overall ceasing of the Empire’s campaign efforts on the frontier for the remainder of the winter. He says that he hopes he will return in the spring, when the army can “initiate a new offensive.”
The formality of Mandel’s statement is laughable against the backdrop of what he and his men are really doing: deserting the townspeople and leaving them to be killed or captured if the barbarians should actually invade the settlement. Behind the thin sheen of military honor and regality lurks total cowardice.
The magistrate notes that, as Mandel speaks, his men are clearly stocking their carriages with the fruits of their looting. While he says that none of the villagers dare to protest, he can nonetheless sense “currents of helpless anger” all around him. Later on, the soldiers commence their departure of the garrison, and a young man runs out towards the company with his arms waving, stirring unrest. Shots ring out—and the magistrate sees the cause of the “futile attack”: a man grabbing at a woman in the very last cart. The square, afterwards, is dark and empty, and for the rest of the night, small family groups follow after the soldiers in a hurry, carrying heavy packs.
The magistrate’s observance of Mandel’s soldiers stocking their carriages with what they’ve stolen puts the icing on the cake of their hypocrisy and utter disdain for the welfare of the people it’s their duty to protect. The image of the dark and empty square is a haunting monument to betrayal and desertion, which speaks powerfully to the kind of deception Coetzee portrays as central to the goals of the “new men of Empire.”
The magistrate says that his old apartment stands open—it has been vacant for a while now, the air is musty, and all of his artifacts from the archeological sites have disappeared. Lying down on his mattress, he anticipates that some special uneasiness will befall him, but nothing comes: the room is just as recognizable and familiar as it’s ever been. The magistrate then begins to think about the possibility of being invaded by the barbarians. While he’s certainly convinced that the world is no sugarcoated illusion or dream, he still finds it hard to firmly believe in the prospect that the end is near—that the barbarians will sweep in and kill the inhabitants of the settlement. Ultimately he says that, if and however the citizens of the garrison die, the Empire will have learned nothing—for something “in all of us, deep down” is “granite and unteachable.” For no one, he believes, actually thinks that “the world of tranquil certainties we were born into” is about to be annihilated.
The magistrate’s belief that there is something inalterable and unmanipulable at the core of every person—a fundamental resistance to the idea that the familiar world of certainties in one’s stable, everyday life could ever be taken away and erased—reflects his belief that children are born into the world with a sense of the everlasting, a sense of the cyclical time of nature and the seasons. Though he says this sense of permanence loses its miraculous aura of eternity as one ages in the Empire, this scene reveals that he must think that it nonetheless remains unconscious and “unteachable,” and acts to stabilize our linear, past-to-future thinking, such that the future is always supposed as replicating certain essential features of past experience.