Late in this bravura allegory, the Magistrate tells his murderous captor: “The crime that is latent in us we must inflict on ourselves… Not on others.” It’s a Kurtz-like declaration in a sinister, redemptive novel. The yes-man Magistrate runs a nameless frontier settlement on the fringes of the Empire. Cometh praetorians led by Colonel Joll whose brutality the Magistrate cannot rationalize.
Written at the height of Apartheid, Coetzee’s novel is a cuts like sharp paper. It pitches conscience as an act of rebellion and gobbles up the distance between barbarians and the would-be representatives of justice. The Empire feeds on “pyramids of bone,” but unlike Conrad’s overawed Kurtz, the Magistrate spits back.