This is a fable that takes place in an unnamed border town between an imaginary Empire and its wild frontier. The town's aging Magistrate undergoes a trial of values and conscience as his peaceful routine is shattered by the Empire's declaration of war against nomadic tribes living outside its jurisdiction.
To the magistrate's dismay, prisoners--elderly men, women and children, are brought to the town by Colonel Joll and his troops and tortured or killed for 'information.' The Magistrate translates the Empire's strategy towards torture as, 'Pain is truth; all else is subject to doubt.'
Instead of turning a blind eye, the Magistrate rebels. While the Colonel and his troops are away, he rescues an abandoned barbarian girl who had been made blind and lame. He takes her into his home, nurses her wounds, employs her openly in his kitchen, and his bed, with intimacy yet without penetration. The Magistrate experiences complex tugs of uncharted emotions spawned by lust, guilt, and the immorality of imperialism.
The story is told as a first-person narrative and Coetzee maintains a tone that is economical and austere. The ending is the most perfect experience in the story as it redefines the novel's title, rendering the meaning ever most poignant.