Age of Iron by J M Coetzee - review by Anne Smith

Anne Smith

Living in a State of Shame

Age of Iron


Secker & Warburg 192pp £12.95

Elizabeth Curren is dying of cancer. Her daughter, who is her only relative, left South Africa years ago, vowing never to come back, and has settled in America. Elizabeth will not try to call her daughter home. Instead, she leaves her this account of her last days, which becomes in its way the last testament of South Africa itself, dying of the cancer of apartheid.

On getting back to her house after she has received the bad news from her doctor, Elizabeth finds a drunken tramp has moved in to the bottom of her garden. She is kind to him; he takes what she gives but rejects the notion of her charity. In time she finds out that he is called Mr Vercueil. Vercueil is as indifferent and as uncommunicative as death itself. He stinks to the high heavens, buys his drink with sort of disability pension, and goes his own alcoholic way to nowhere.

Not for Coetzee the easy distraction of the romancers: Elizabeth does not change Vercueil; their relationship does not deepen. But all the time the absolute detachment of the no-hoper is before her, as some sort of last solution. The comfort of Vercueil is simply that he is there, non-judgemental and, being white, with presumably the same cultural background as herself – a dropout from the system created by the politicians whom she describes with devastating as she watches them on TV:

I have only to see the heavy, blank faces so familiar since childhood to feel gloom and nausea. The bullies in the last row of school-desks, raw-boned, lumpish boys, grown up now and promoted to rule the land. They with their fathers and mothers, their aunts and uncles, their brothers and sisters: a locust horde, a plague of black locusts infesting the country, munching without cease, devouring lives . . . Legitimacy they no longer trouble to claim. Reason they have shrugged off. What absorbs them is power and the stupor of power … And their message stupidly unchanging, stupidly forever the same. Their feat, after years of etymological meditation on the word, to have raised stupidity to a virtue.

The stupidity explodes into her own house when Elizabeth’s maid Florence returns from holiday, bringing her 15-year-old son Bheki with her, to keep him from getting into trouble in the township. Through Florence’s explanation of her feelings about Bheki and his friends, Elizabeth learns how the oppression of the blacks has finally subverted the natural order: ‘”I cannot tell these children what to do,” said Florence. “It is all changed today. There are no more mothers and fathers.”‘

Elizabeth challenges this: ‘What kind of parents will they become who were taught that the time of parents is over? Can the parents be recreated once the idea of parents has been destroyed within us? … Their hearts are turning to stone before our eyes.’

Florence is not moved: ‘These are good children, they are like iron, we are proud of them.’

Bheki’s friend turns up. The two boys are followed around by the police. When they are out playing on their bikes, the policemen engineer an accident which puts Bheki’s friend in hospital. Bheki returns to the township, where he is killed by the police during a protest. Elizabeth takes Florence to look for her son. For the first time she experiences the feelings which make such boys heroes. She also encounters a hostile crowd of blacks, and confronts the police after a scene which Coetzee evokes with potently devastating economy. Of course she gets nowhere, except to the realisation that ‘Perhaps I should simply accept that is how one must live from now on: in a state of shame.’ After the funeral she confides to Vercueil:

Now that child is buried and we walk upon him. Let me tell you, when I walk upon this land, this South Africa, I have a gathering feeling of walking upon black faces. They are dead but the spirit has not left them. They lie there heavy and obdurate, waiting for my feet to pass, waiting for me to go, waiting to be raised up again. Millions of figures of pig-iron floating under the skin of the earth. The age of iron waiting to return.

Bheki’s friend returns to her house from hospital, looking for Bheki. The police follow him, and there is a Chicago-style siege and shoot-out before he too is killed. Elizabeth is driven to the edge. But she is near death, too. Physically she is becoming dependant. In the end she has to rely on Vercueil for comfort, and the last embrace.

Age of Iron is a minor masterpiece in the same way as The Grapes of Wrath. Like Steinbeck, but far more economically, Coetzee strips humanity back to the poor naked forked animal that it is, and finds as much to love as to hate. This, you feel, is how it really is.

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