In Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee as well as In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka, the marking of or writing on the body as a form of power or appropriation takes place on many levels. In both works, we have the inhumanly cruel military officials of the colonialist power - Kafka's Officer is completely deranged - who carry out acts of torture on members of the local population to subjugate them into debilitated passivity, or kill them in order to instill fear into the colonized population and demonstrate their strength and technological prowess.
[...] That is how you get the truth (Coetzee, We see this system first tried out on a young boy and his grandfather who are picked up in the beginning of the novel following a barbarian raid. The grandfather ends up dead after a confrontation with the interrogators, while the young boy falls sick due to the many small knife wounds he suffers during the torture. The that the boy tells in order to stop the torture is presumably what Colonel Joll wants to hear, an avowal of an impending barbarian invasion. [...]
[...] When it turns out that he condemned a man to torture and death by the machine for sleeping through an hourly salute and insulting his superior after he was horsewhipped across the face, it is clear that the Officer is more interested in seeing his beloved, elaborate machine in action than actual justice. In fact, we see that there is nothing just about this machine when the Officer programs it to inscribe the words Just” on his own body, but the machine works at whim and breaks down, murdering him with arbitrary stabs. [...]
[...] The branding of people, whether by a machine that writes on their bodies with needles, or by tracing out the word in the dust on their backs and then beating them as in Waiting for the Barbarians, reminds me of the scarlet letter Hester Prynne had to wear in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. In these works of literature, however, branding leads not only to humiliation and alienation, but lifelong handicaps and quite possibly, death. In Waiting for the Barbarians, we see the Empire lose to its subjects when Colonel Joll is defeated in his expedition that was meant to show the barbarians the Empire's strength. [...]
[...] On a more personal level, the Magistrate tries to appropriate the young barbarian girl that he takes in by physically marking her and aspiring to sexually possess her. He begins with the ritual of washing her, oiling her body, dressing her in his own things, and helping her wounds heal, but does not seem to be able to forge a connection with her and come to possess her physically and mentally. The girl, mutilated at the feet and blinded by her torturers, is already marked by a very low reputation in town because she is known to have slept with soldiers during the time she was begging. [...]
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