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Set in a northern border oasis in some unstated time and place, South African novelist Coetzee's novella is pared down to metaphorical essentials. A magistrate (who also serves as narrator) finds his jurisdiction usurped by the arrival of a sunglasses-wearing newcomer: Colonel Jell of the Third Bureau, a torturer sent by the nervous central government to try to wipe out encroachment by the ""barbarians"" lying in wait beyond the border. And among Joll's victims is a captured barbarian girl: she's tortured, made temporarily blind, her feet broken. But then the girl is taken in by the magistrate-narrator--at first as his ward, then his bedmate, and finally his sexual partner; and thus the girl grows into a symbol, for the magistrate, of all the ambiguities in the sex/power equation, ambiguities which are being played out on a larger and far more brutal scale by Jell and his men. After leaving the outpost and letting the girl go back to her people, the magistrate returns to find himself branded an enemy, subject to prison and torture. And finally, as the defenders under Jell become more and more hysterical at the continual barbarian guerrilla successes, cruelty is followed by flight--with the old, now physically broken magistrate left to await the barbarians' victory. His ultimate advice to the departing torturers: ""The crime that is latent in us we must inflict on ourselves, not on others."" Coetzee (From the Heart of the Country, 1977) has set up a stringent South Africa allegory here--with enormous potential for menace and dread. Unfortunately, however, his presentation is so bloodless, so dutiful in its intellectualization, that only toward the end do we get a palpable sense of the stark geography in which all this nerve-wracking waiting is being played out. Lucid but uninvolving: a psycho-political thesis worked out too abstractly and predictably to hold most readers.

Pub Date: April 29th, 1982
ISBN: 014006110X
Publisher: Penguin