The Point of No Return

Though difficult to dwell on because of it’s extremely violent and disturbing content, Coetzee includes the episode of the twelve captured barbarians being beaten so that his protagonist can no longer hide in the shadows of non-action and passive aggression, made noticeable by an increase in description and careful placement in the context of the novel as a whole. The section reads like its own mini-novel,  bookended by language of beginning and finality – it starts, “First there is the sound of muskets far away, as diminutive as popguns,” (117), and ends, “Though…I cannot re-enter the dream…” (126). Here, Coetzee warns readers that this event can be isolated because of its importance to the story’s (and the Magistrate’s) progression. While the sense that something new is about to happen, made possible by the beginning with “first,” is important, the section’s last sentence provides the true meaning of this section. The Magistrate can no longer “re-enter” his recurring dream, everything has changed. This is why I would argue that this passage is the climax of the novel (or at least of what we have read so far, as it is the point of no return). I would also assert that Coetzee places it three quarters of the way through the text purposefully – in classic plays, the climax typically occurs in the third of five acts (no exactly three quarters, but roughly), and it’s no small coincidence that this scene’s heightened details and imagery make it read more cinematically than any other part of the novel.

It is also of note that this scene occurs “in glare, so blinding that [the Magistrate] must squint and shade [his] eyes,” (118). As Roseanne explored in her last blogpost, Coetzee seems to correlate light with knowledge. No longer can the Empire’s dark deeds be hidden by the night or pushed into dark torture chambers, for this display of cruelty happens in the open daylight. The use of the word “blinding” for the daylight is interesting here, though typically used in English, because this is actually a scene of realization. Perhaps this word is used simply to remind readers that the citizens and the Magistrate have previously been able to use the excuse of blindness or a lack of knowledge as an excuse for the continual brutality of their government. Or perhaps it is to underscore that even though the government’s actions are completely see-able, they are incomprehensible. I think it could also represent the physical difficulty of coming from darkness into light – the light (truth) is hard to accept at first, because it is so glaring, but as the eyes adjust, the light is usually much more enjoyable (perhaps moral, or self-fulfilling) than the darkness ever was. In any case, this scene takes place in the daylight, it is the first scene of brutality that is not shrouded in some way, and therefore can no longer be half-ignored or dismissed by the Magistrate, compelling him to action.

Heightened description also works to set this scene apart from others in the novel. Though characters are still relatively universal (although it is important that the only named character, Colonel Joll, is ringleader in these events), Coetzee evokes specific colors and sounds and physicality to make the beating more realistic and confrontational; the Magistrate watches as “the soldiers use the stout green cane staves, bringing them down with the heavy slapping sounds of washing-paddles, raising red welts on the prisoners’ backs and buttocks,” (121). Readers experience a new kind of relation to the characters, mirroring the Magistrate’s newly increased connection to the barbarians, which ultimately motivates him to speak out against Colonel Joll and his minions.

– Chelsea Radigan (sorry if the page numbers are different than in your text(s)!)

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