With an impressive ten books on the list, this is surprisingly the first Coetzee to be reviewed on this site. A Nobel Prize winner and two-time Booker prize winner, this South African native is one of the most highly lauded modern day authors Coetzee (pronounced kut-si) cannot be overlooked any longer.
Set at the colonial settlement of an undefined (sidebar: I really feel I have to stress the undefined Empire. For some reason, and I think because I knew Coetzee is South African, I really thought it was set in Africa and got a little thrown when they started talking about the approaching snowy winter and when our Magistrate adopted a wolf cub. I’m not going to assume that any other readers are as presumptuous as I am, but just in case, undefined.), “Empire”, our narrator is the magistrate, having been appointed to the post some twenty years earlier. Over this time he has grown to know and respect the indigenous people of the area, referred to as the Barbarians. When a new Colonel arrives due to the news of some disturbance by the Barbarians, the Magistrate becomes more and more uncomfortable of the treatment of the Barbarians at the hand of this new authority. When a relationship develops between himself and a Barbarian girl, he leaves to return her to her people, further emphasising his sympathies and when he returns is branded a traitor to the cause.
This is an all encompassing story of a flawed man with very noble intentions. As the Magistrate is our narrator, we, the reader, are able to hear his most intimate thoughts and motivations and his own painful awareness of his flaws. There is no self delusion here, or even delusion in his role in the Empire, or in the Empire itself.
For I was not, as I liked to think, the indulgent pleasure-loving opposite of the cold rigid Colonel. I was the lie that the Empire tells itself when times are easy, he the truth that the Empire tells when harsh winds blow. Two sides of imperial rule, no more, no less.
The story itself is moving, because at its very basic it is about a man who is persecuted for being a decent human being. History itself dictates that these type of atrocities happened and still do happen. And yet, to have this tale told from the perspective of someone in power, is a compelling read. His fall from power, the resulting suffering he experiences both physically and mentally all leading to a bittersweet redemptive conclusion is laid out with a masterful hand. Coetzee paints a very real man in an artfully described surroundings, surroundings not specific to a time and location so could be at any time in history, anywhere.
This book is well written, as well it should be as not only is it on the list but has at its helm on of the most highly regarded authors of modern time. But the strength in my opinion is the sympathy and emotion evoked, an absorption into the story that leaves the reader mulling over it long after they are finished reading it. This is not a happy read, and is quite heavy going in parts which is not unexpected given the subject matter, but it is a great read and one I highly recommend.