The Magistrate, the story’s first-person narrator, an administrator of a territory belonging to an unnamed empire. He is an aging and somewhat decadent man who explains that he has lived in the remote settlement for decades and has haphazardly and inefficiently carried out his administrative duties on behalf of the empire. Although he admits to his laziness, his fondness for young native girls, and his satisfaction with the old ways of imperialism, he still emerges as an admirable and sympathetic character. When he comprehends the full extent of the cruelty condoned by the new regime, which is determined to save the empire at any cost, he regrets his initial compliance with the Third Bureau’s orders and rebels, then becomes a prisoner himself. At the same time, he searches for some significance in his own wasted life. In the light of the novel’s allegorical overtones, the character of The Magistrate represents all men and women who face not only their inherent weaknesses but the forces of totalitarianism as well. At the story’s conclusion, The Magistrate simply goes on living, however uneasily, and continues his struggle to find a clear pattern in the complexities of life.
Colonel Joll, an official in the mysterious Third Bureau, an arm of the Civil Guard that was created to protect the empire, which is threatened by barbarians. This young officer specializes in torture and interrogation. An elegant sort with affectations in dress, manner, and speech, the colonel has come to terms with the demands made by the forces of evil set loose by a desperate government. Unlike The Magistrate, Joll does not question; he only acts. Ultimately, he encounters defeat at the hands of the barbarians.
Warrant Officer Mandel
Warrant Officer Mandel, an assistant to Colonel Joll. He is a younger version of his superior officer: handsome and vain, sophisticated, cruel, spiritually vacuous, and, above all, blindly committed to the cause he serves. For The Magistrate, a man with a conscience, he feels neither sympathy nor pity. He displays his true colors by fleeing when it appears that Colonel Joll will not return from his expedition into the wilderness.
A young native woman
A young native woman, a victim of Colonel Joll’s torture. She is stocky in build, quiet and long-suffering in nature, and an innocent amid corruption. Blinded and crippled during her interrogation, she is rescued by The Magistrate, who nurses her to health, seduces her, and attempts to use her as a kind of expiation for his own part in the activities of the Third Bureau. The young woman gains a measure of nobility in her suffering.
The most interesting and complex character in this novel is unquestionably the magistrate. Although the other characters are fairly conventional and one-dimensional, they are skillfully drawn and somewhat perplexing as well. Colonel Joll and Warrant Officer Mandel are stock villains: sadists who are weak at the core, men who are “unsatisfied and unsatisfying,” who have been told that “one can reach the top only by climbing a pyramid of bodies.” Coetzee merely sketches Joll and Mandel, but he chooses his details carefully. These men are convincing petty tyrants. While the appearances and the actions of these Third Bureau officials are familiar, even predictable, Coetzee offers no satisfactory explanation for their efficient and righteous racism and brutality. Just as the evil of Macbeth or Iago or Adolf Hitler is finally a mystery, the ability of these “new men” to return from the torture chamber “to everyday life—to sit down . . . and break bread with family or comrades” is an enigma. It would be comforting to dismiss these men as monsters, deficient in basic human qualities, but Coetzee does not allow the reader that luxury. Joll and Mandel are human and distinctly modern in their ignorance of the past and commitment to the status quo, their cynical devotion to practicality and self-survival, and their...
(The entire section is 1,405 words.)