Age of Iron
J. M. Coetzee
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Set in apartheid-era South Africa, Age of Iron explores the insidious nature of complicity and reflects on the failure of language to maintain its authority in a complex postcolonial world. Like many of her white compatriots, Elizabeth Curren, a professor of classics who is dying of cancer, has remained willfully blind to the violence and degradation around her. The novel takes the form of a letter she writes to her daughter during the death throes of the apartheid system itself, in which she attempts to see clearly both the present and those pieces of the past that she has chosen not to examine. Coetzee does not indicate, however, whether this letter absolves Mrs. Curren of her past blindness, and we are left with the question of how much responsibility each individual must bear in a corrupt or diseased society. By casting the novel as a personal letter addressed to a particular recipient, Coetzee links reader and narrator in a way that a third-person narrative or even a more conventional first-person narrative would not. The reader becomes another addressee of Mrs. Curren's letter and therefore, perhaps, implicated in this tale of collective blindness and guilt.
If Mrs. Curren's crime is one of complicity, then this novel in many ways reads like a confession. But it is a very problematic confession. Her crime is not easily articulated, not only because she has trouble seeing it, but also because she has trouble finding the language to describe it. She writes to her daughter, "As far as I can confess, to you I confess. What is my error, you ask?...it is like a fog, everywhere and nowhere. I cannot touch it, trap it, put a name to it" (p. 136). Confession demands the naming of a crime, as well as some sort of public acknowledgment of it. But what if neither is possible? Mrs. Curren's complicity is intangible both legally and morallynot only is there no legal context for her confession, but there is also no moral framework for it within her society. Yet, like a fog, her complicity permeates everything.
Although Mrs. Curren writes this confession to her daughter and speaks at least part of it to the homeless Mr. Vercueil, it is not clear whether either of them hears it. Mrs. Curren implies that the letter she composes may never be mailed, and Mr. Vercueil turns out to be asleep during much of her confession. Is a confession still valid if it is not heard? The novel does not provide a definitive answer to this question. The role of the listener or witness is also unclear. The witness may be meant to pass judgment or merely to allow Mrs. Curren to express her shame. And while Mrs. Curren seeks some sort of salvation through her words, she may or may not be ultimately redeemed by them. Mr. Vercueil's final embrace seems to be a gesture of deliverance, but Mrs. Curren also acknowledges to her daughter that she is "having a death without illumination" (p. 195). Thus Coetzee raises doubts about the possibility of redemption and renewal in a society where true confession and acknowledgment of guilt may be impossible.
Language fails Mrs. Curren in more ways than one. Beyond her difficulty of finding the proper words for confession, Age of Iron devotes much attention to the way in which the meaning of words has been lost or distorted. As a professor of classics, Mrs. Curren is proficient in the dead language of Latin. At one point, she gives Mr. Vercueil a false etymology for the word charity, saying, "But what does it matter if my sermons rest on false etymologies?" (p. 22). The word charity has become unmoored, unanchored from its root, care. "Care: the true root of charity. I look for him to care, and he does not. Because he is beyond caring. Beyond caring and beyond care" (p. 22). Perhaps language fails because words have lost their connection to experience. Because people rarely care for one another in this society, the word becomes meaningless, and the false etymology no more misleading than the true one. But the novel also suggests that assigning false etymologies to words may not be harmless. What are the potential consequences of words losing their connection to experience or meaning? Mrs. Curren speaks of the way that her words fell off Bheki's friend "like dead leaves the moment they were uttered" (p. 79). The way that characters in this novel communicate, or fail to communicate, may be due in part to the misuse or distortion of language.
Also central to the novel is the relationship between Mrs. Curren and the vagrant Mr. Vercueil. She remarks earlier that he is "beyond caring and beyond care" (p. 22). But their connection to one another suggests that this may not be true. The information that we are given about Mr. Vercueil is scant, and his role remains ambiguous. His name may provide some clue: Verskuil, one of the variations of his name that she mentions, comes from Afrikaans and translates into English as alter ego or masked self. Mr. Vercueil, who belongs to the older social order, seems to represent some aspect of Mrs. Curren. She says, "He is and is not I. Because in the look he gives me I see myself in a way that can be written" (p. 9). Like her disease and her child in America, Mr. Vercueil is both part of her and alien to her. In him, she may see reflections of her own ties to the past, as well as her spiritual homelessness. Why is she more apt to recognize in him what she would rather not see in herself? Perhaps Mrs. Curren is practiced at blinding herself to things she would rather not see. Or perhaps seeing oneself fullyand taking responsibility for one's actionsis a more complicated and difficult act than seeing another. While Mr. Vercueil is linked to the past, there is also some indication that he makes it possible for her to prepare for the immediate future. He is the appointed messenger for her letter, and it is in his otherworldly embrace that she passes out of the world of the living.
In Age of Iron, as in many of Coetzee's novels, neither the past nor the future escapes close scrutiny. If the novel raises questions about the diseased culture that is passing away, it also raises questions about the unbending "iron" culture, perhaps engendered by the old one, that is replacing it.
John Michael Coetzee was born in 1940 in Cape Town, South Africa, the son of a lawyer and a teacher. Coetzee grew up in an English-speaking household and attended English-language schools, but he also spoke Afrikaans, developed from the Dutch language and spoken by most whites in South Africa. He spent most of his childhood near the town of Worcester, about 70 miles outside of Cape Town.
Upon completing bachelor's degrees in mathematics and literature at the University of Cape Town, Coetzee moved to London to work as a computer programmer, writing poetry and studying literature in his spare time. In 1965 he came to the United States to pursue a doctorate in literature and linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, where he wrote his dissertation on Samuel Beckett. Coetzee spent several years teaching in the United States before returning to South Africa in 1971. He served as a professor of literature at the University of Cape Town until he retired in 2002. He is a member of the committee on social thought at the University of Chicago and research fellow at the University of Adelaide.
Coetzee's novels include In the Heart of the Country (1977), Waiting for the Barbarians (1982), Life & Times of Michael K (1983), and Disgrace (1999). He has also published two memoirs about growing up in South Africa during apartheid, Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1997) and Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II (2002). His fiction has won numerous awards, including the Booker Prize (he is the only author to win twice), the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. A noted essayist and scholar, Coetzee has also produced translations of works in Afrikaans, Dutch, French, and German.
- Why is the novel written in the form of a letter from Mrs. Curren to her daughter?
- Why does Mrs. Curren say about Mr. Vercueil, "When I write about him I write about myself" (p. 9)?
- In the last days of her life, why does Mrs. Curren grow close to Mr. Vercueil and more remote from her daughter in America?
- Why does Mrs. Curren's fatal disease bring her into consciousness about the politics of South Africa?
- Why does Mrs. Curren consider her mother's story about not knowing what was rolling over herthe wagon wheels or the starsto be her own story? Why does she believe it is "there that I come from, it is there that I begin" (p. 120)?
- What does Florence mean when she describes Bheki and his friend as being "like iron" (p. 50)? How does Mrs. Curren understand this phrase in a different way than Florence seems to?
- How have Mrs. Curren and Mr. Thabane used their positions as teachers and their knowledge in different ways? What is the significance of Mrs. Curren saying of Mr. Thabane that he makes use of the "legacy of Socrates" in questioning her (p. 98)?
- After witnessing the violence and death in Guguletu and Site C, Mrs. Curren says, "These are terrible sights....But I cannot denounce them in other people's words. I must find my own words, from myself. Otherwise it is not the truth" (pp. 98Ð99). What does she mean by this?
- Why does Mrs. Curren believe that to avoid dying in "a state of ugliness," she "must love, first of all, the unlovable" (p. 136)? Why does Mrs. Curren think that her love for her daughter is called into question by her inability to love Bheki's friend?
- What does Mrs. Curren mean when she says, "I trust Vercueil because I do not trust Vercueil. I love him because I do not love him"? Why does she believe that the alms she gives Vercueil are the "hardest of all" (p. 131)?
- What does Mrs. Curren mean when she says, "As long as I was ashamed I knew I had not wandered in to dishonor" (p. 165)?
- How are we to understand Mrs. Curren's statement that Mr. Vercueil may be "an angel come to show me the way" (p. 168)?
Athol Fugard, "Master Harold"...and the Boys (1982)
Set in the 1950s, this play examines the close but complicated relationship between a young, white South African boy, Master Harold (Hally), and two black servants, Sam and Willie.