Through the conflicted perspective of the Magistrate it becomes apparent that the barbarians are not simply a population 'out there' beyond the frontier occupied by the empire.The shocking, barbaric violence that Colonel Joll deals out to an elderly barbarian and a young child in the opening pages works to draw into question the very distinction between civilised and savage.
For example, his debut novel, (1974) comprises two novellas that evoke apparently discrete historical events, one colonial and the other post-colonial, in a manner that clearly asks us to reflect upon their relationship to one another and to contemporary South Africa more generally. The second is set 200 years earlier and focuses on a Boer settler in the 1700s.
Bold and telling, this masterly evocation of a young boy's life is the book Coetzee's many admirers have been waiting for, but never could have expected.
During his latter years there, he also travelled frequently to teach at universities in the US. Coetzee is also a translator of Dutch and Afrikaans literature.
The literary critic Derek Attridge argues that moments such as these warn the reader against reducing to an instrumental political function.
That to do so is to ignore crucial sections of the text that are hard to ‘read off’ as conventional messages or communication acts, such as the puzzling role of dogs and animals in the novel, or David’s unfinished opera, or the significance of the central (but absent) rape scene in the novel.