Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Age of Iron

Age of Iron, by J.M. Coetzee
1990, 198 pp.

I had hoped to give a perfect review to J.M. Coetzee's Age of Iron, but alas, the book has one inescapable flaw: on page 141, there is a superfluous "very."

In addition to winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003, Mr. Coetzee, a white South African and university professor, holds a Ph.D. in linguistics and nine honorary doctorates, translates from Dutch and Afrikaans, has won two Booker Prizes, and is such a recluse that he seems to be the only famous person on the planet who (as far as I can tell) is not a close friend of Christopher Hitchens. There are stories of entire dinner parties at which he does not utter a single word. A colleague reports having seen him laugh exactly once. I would very much like to know what the joke was. He seems to write short, stark, shocking books in tight, lapidary prose, mainly about the cruelty and suffering of living in this world. Apparently he does not smoke, drink, or eat meat; he bicycles long distances, and spends time writing seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. I find his self-discipline and exceptional skill faintly terrifying.

Age of Iron is an epistolary novel narrated by an old woman who is dying of cancer in 1986 South Africa to her daughter in America. This is at once something of a jolt: since this is the first Coetzee book I've read, I have no idea what his authorial voice usually sounds like, but here he is never out of character. Every word is persuasively the voice of a sad, lonely, dying woman, watching the world she knew collapsing around her. Few male authors attempt a female protagonist, fewer still do so with first-person narration, and I'm not sure I've ever read anyone not only add the complications of age, terminal illness, and racial alienation, but actually succeed. To be perfectly critical, as the book goes on, the narrator (around page 150, we learn her name is Mrs. Curren) begins to give lengthy monologues which at times sound a bit stilted and are difficult to imagine actually being spoken. Mrs. Curren was a professor of classics, though, so I was willing to believe that she has a skill and familiarity with eloquent lectures, and since the narration is a letter, I assumed that in the process of writing, Mrs. Curren cleaned up the language a bit. You can almost see her revising as on page 163 when she goes from the cliché "War is never what it pretends to be. Scratch the surface and you find, invariably, old men sending young men to their death in the name of some abstraction or other" to the excellent "the future comes disguised, if it came naked we would be petrified by what we saw." Coetzee it seems is a good enough writer than he doesn't have to force Mrs. Curren to be one all the time, unlike (say), John Updike, who is always having simple, uneducated character speak with the chiseled precision of John Updike.

The book opens with Mrs. Curren discovering a homeless man named Vercueil who has been sleeping in the alley next to her house. She develops a sort of relationship with him, attempting to offer him help and charity, which he rejects, but at the same time desperately needing him for human contact. She is a smart, sensitive woman who at the end of her life has been left alone to die: "'It will be all right': those are the words I want to hear uttered. I want to be held to someone's bosom, to Florence's, to yours, to anyone's, and told that it will be all right." Vercueil is never romanticized: he is constantly difficult, unappreciative, selfish, and often unfeeling. He is mostly silent, mostly inattentive. He is, in Mrs. Curren's words, "beyond caring and beyond care." Mrs. Curren has a black live-in maid, whose teenage son gets wrapped up in anti-apartheid violence. She tries to warn him that he is too young and the police are too brutal, but his hatred is stronger than her advice: "My words fell off him like dead leaves the moment they were uttered. The words of a woman, therefore negligible; of an old woman, therefore doubling negligible; but above all of a white."

In her efforts to help the two angry teenagers, Mrs. Curren sees terrible things: police brutality, dead children, a shanty-town burning. Coetzee does not pull punches here, and is all the more harsh in that the witness to terrible events is a sad, vulnerable old woman who is constantly in pain. "Grief past weeping," she writes. "I am hollow, I am a shell. To each of us fate sends the right disease. Mine a disease that eats me out from inside. Were I to be opened up they would find me hollow as a doll, a doll with a crab sitting inside licking its lips, dazed by the flood of light."

Though the figure of Mrs. Curren is easily recognizable as a representative of soft, insulated, anti-apartheid liberal whites, neither she nor the book as a whole ever descends to the level of simple allegory. Coetzee does not force this thinking, feeling woman to become Everywoman (or Everyman), perhaps on the excellent grounds that Every(wo)man is a dreadful bore. It is an intensely personal, human book, and Coetzee never lets the reader lose track of the details of this specific person dying in this specific place at this specific time. Instead of the author making the character a hand-puppet for a larger idea, the character comes to realize her own place in the crumbling world of apartheid South Africa. She begins to witness the extent of the government capacity for brutality, and starts to understand the endless hatred that brutality has developed in the young generation. She sees terrible things, knows that more terrible things will continue to happen, and further, knows that she will not live to see peace and healing. "I am trying to keep a soul alive in times not hospitable to the soul," she writes.

Some reviews have suggested the end finds a sort of solace and salvation, but I must disagree. The relationship between Mrs. Curren and Vercueil is one of two equally marginalized people, left behind by a generation which is much harder and more cruel than they. Both of them are dead weight to a society which does not care about basic human worth, so they are left to die, ignored by everyone but each other. It's a bleak ending for a bleak book, but brilliantly crafted and flawlessly executed.

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