Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Age of Iron by J.M. Coetzee

Coetzee was raised in South Africa and now lives in Australia. He is an acclaimed writer who writes of the legacy of lies that is generated from man’s inhumanity to man, from the unequal power structures that are created and exist within our neighborhoods, families, schools and governments.

The Age of Iron is his sixth novel. Written in 1990, in the last years under South Africa’s system of apartheid, the novel is about a Mrs. Curran, a white liberal South African, living in Cape Town, who is dying of cancer. The cancer has eaten into her bones. It gives her immense pain, but she does not want to check into a hospital, since she knows that all they will do is help to obliterate her, drown her with medication. South Africa has cancer too, suffering from a malignancy that has enveloped all its population. Mrs. Curran, as a liberal, has considered her existence as apart from the injustice of apartheid. As a university professor, she has bemoaned it, witnessed against it, and finally lived with it, although unwillingly. But what she will discover is that she has never been outside its influence. And instead of being a bystander, she finds that she has been an accomplice.

Mrs. Curran’s dying condition is what arrests her, opens up her life to the reality outside her. First she forges a strange alliance with a homeless man, an alcoholic, who she feeds and offers shelter to, asking him for favors - like helping her when the pain is too intense. He is inscrutable, as ready to curse her as to mutter an unwilling response, to her intense and agonized questions. Her black maid has a teenage son, caught up as all the other young black people are, in the violence happening in the townships - the official reaction to their demonstrations. Dying alone, Mrs. Curran sees the ties that others have, and follows any claim now put upon her. She drives her maid out to the township, and sees the boy’s body laid out, killed by the police. Later another black young man, the dead boy’s friend, comes to her for hiding and is found and killed in her own house.

Coetzee's writing is searing and memorable, spare yet evocative in detail and in mood. You cannot escape the impact of what he writes. Yet for all his understanding, he will not countenance any real hope for redemption. He points to our ability to fool ourselves, to weave impressions of our plight that suit our need for affirmation, that we can be “baring our soul” and still be manipulating our audience. Mrs. Curran has grandchildren – the sons of her daughter who fled South Africa, turned her back on her country and now lives in the United States. But Mrs. Curran does not envy those children. Instead, she regrets their having escaped this doom, this inheritance of weight and implication. To her, they will die “as stupid as the day they were born” – protected: never to drown, never to taste dirt in their mouth.

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