Age of Iron, by J.M. Coetzee
An early novel in Coetzee’s list of achievements, Age of Iron, depicts the author’s distaste for apartheid, the revolution against it, and gives prescient hints as to what was to come of South Africa after Mandela. Coetzee has always seemed to this reader an idealist, harping eloquently against human imperfections and the flawed institutions created by flawed people. But he’s always seemed to know this about himself, and he’s made obvious attempts in his fiction to resolve this inner conflict. In Age of Iron, such conflict couldn’t be more apparent.
His protagonist here is a Mrs. Curren, a former classics professor suffering a terminal case of cancer, who has always looked down on both apartheid and the struggle against it from her academic ivory tower. Now, however, the mud and blood of the struggle reach her personally, and they won’t let go. Her housekeeper, Florence, has a young son, Bheki, who has involved himself in the revolution’s rising violence. He disappears, and Mrs. Curren offers to help Florence find him. This takes them into a poor black community being burned by the police, as if to exterminate rats.
Bheki has been shot dead, they quickly discover, and Mrs. Curren now faces the life and death reality of the struggle. Too, she’s seen as unwelcome in that place, both by the white policemen and the poor black residents. She begins to realize a suppressed alienation rising to her surface, an alienation that allows her no emotional refuge from either the social conflict or her disease.
Then there’s Vercueil – an alcoholic hobo and, if he can be believed, an ex-trawler sailor who was hurt in a shipboard accident, rendering him unable to work. He becomes Mrs. Curren’s alter ego, a sometimes-sounding board, who is willing to help her end her life – more willing that she is, however.
To Mrs. Curren, she and the likes of other whites in South Africa are floss, mere visitors hovering over the African soil. Florence, Bheki, and their kind are a kind of iron – fragile of body, but of more durable stuff soul-wise. This then is Coetzee’s metaphor – that the most durable souls seem to be the most set upon in the flesh.
This book doesn’t really take sides in the struggle to throw off apartheid; instead it summons us to the view that South Africa could have been saved at one time, but now, with the first shots having been fired, it’s too late for all that.
If there’s one flaw to the book it’s the almost parenthetical role of Vercueil. He could have played to the hilt the truth-dealing drunkard to Mrs. Curren’s indignation, her ivory towered view of life in that torn country. He has moments of this, to be sure, but he could have been much more.
My rating: 4-1/2 of 5 stars