“What has made it impossible for us to live in time like fish in water, like birds in air, like children? It is the fault of the Empire! Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history.” (153-154)
Several times throughout the book, the magistrate refers to time and history in conflict with one another. This juxtaposition was a bit confusing to me, but became clearer with this passage. The first thing to note is the word “Empire” used without an article as if it were a name. In the same way that the townspeople created a stigma for the barbarians by grouping them all under one name, the magistrate clusters all the evil that the Empire encompasses into one form. This being, “Empire,” then has the ability to act as an individual and take responsibility and blame for itself.
Time is what the barbarians lived in; it is a string of recurring cycles of the earth like days, seasons, years, and life. Until the Empire came, the magistrate believes, time was like an undisturbed, unwritten law. But the Empire came in and broke that law, disregarded it and created “history,” which is a stain on time. On page 178 the magistrate thinks, “I wanted to live outside the history that Empire imposes on its subjects, even its lost subjects. I never wished it for the barbarians that they should have the history of Empire laid upon them.” He talks about his innocence, but he realizes that even the innocent (like the barbarians and the children) cannot escape the history that is being played out by the Empire. This passage also reflects the idea that the history and the mistakes of one people have a great effect on others. As with any oppression of one group by another, the abrupt change in the lives of the oppressed (in their “time”) is caused by and traced back to the oppressor (who “created the time of history”).
In all, the magistrate is going back and forth between wanting to be innocent and ignorant of the horrors that the Empire has brought and knowing that he can’t undo what’s been done and un-see what he has witnessed. In the beginning of the novel, the magistrate had the thought that “it would be best if this obscure chapter in the history of the world were terminated at once…and we swore to make a new start” (page 27). By the end, he is acutely aware that the removal of the barbarians would not solve the problem because the problem lies in the Empire. Its existence causes the history which disrupts time, and whether it was the barbarians or some other group in some other time, the problem of the Empire remains.
– Rachel A. Ringgold