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J M Coetzee: Age of Iron

Mrs. Curren is a retired white South African classics teacher who has just learned that she has cancer and is dying. The novel is nominally a letter to her daughter, who left South Africa to live in the USA, because she was opposed to apartheid. Mrs. Curren has not seen her for some time. Unlike his other novels, Coetzee makes a head-on attack against apartheid in this book, through the eyes of Mrs. Curren. Early on in the book, she takes in a sort of lodger/factotum, a former sailor called Vercueil who is now homeless and a drunk. He sort of helps her around the house and when she makes excursions. It is his role to mail the letter to the daughter when Mrs. Curren finally dies.

Mrs. Curren’s exposure to apartheid has been limited up till now but she suddenly sees it in all its force. Her”domestic” (the term she uses), Florence, has a son, Bheki, involved in the resistance to apartheid. He and his friend John/Johannes visit and are harassed and injured by the police. Bheki gets away but, later, Florence gets a call and Mrs. Curren drives her out to the township in a scene worthy of Apocalypse Now, where Mrs. Curren and her various escorts pass through roadblocks, rioting and the vicious and wanton burning of shanties (with people still in them) by the police before finally arriving in hell itself, bodies laid out, including the body of Bheki. When she returns home, John turns up and she shelters him, even though she knows he is armed but the police find him and kill him. Despite her complicity, they leave her alone, knowing that she is to die soon.

Coetzee pulls few punches in his attack on the brutality of apartheid, how it is destroying not only lives but entire social structures. Family life has gone out of the window as the young African kids are committed at an early age to the struggle. Not only does he condemn apartheid, he shows quite clearly that it cannot hope to win. Indeed, there is no doubt that this is a cancer-as-a-symbol-for-the-decadence-of-society novel as Mrs. Curren herself makes very clear. Age and illness are also part of his theme but it is difficult to separate those from the overarching symbolism of the novel.

Publishing history

First published 1990 by Secker and Warburg