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Age of Iron
J.M. Coetzee
publisher: Querido, Amsterdam, 1990



refered to by:
The Grass is Singing
Doris Lessing


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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 morally—not 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 fully—and taking responsibility for one's actions—is 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. (from: www.penguinputnam.com)

bookweb    
ON J.M. COETZEE'S BOOKSHELF

Watt
Samuel Beckett, Written circa 1943, published 1953
Insofar as it has a plot, Watt does for the most part concern a man named Watt, who travels to the manor of Mr Knott and there works for him, engaged in the most mechanical yet convoluted tasks, before leaving and (perhaps) ultimately being institutionalized.

Malone Dies
Samuel Beckett, 1951
Part II of the Trilogy.
The decrepit Malone, bedridden, fills his mind and his remaining time with memories, stories and bitter comment, while waiting for the 'throes'. The novel disintegrates as the protagonist does.

The Trial
Franz Kafka, 1925P
The tale of Joseph K, a respectable functionary in a bank, who is suddenly arrested and must defend his innocence against a charge about which he can get no information.

The Castle
Franz Kafka, 1926P
The story of K., the unwanted Land Surveyor who is never admitted to the Castle nor accepted in the village, and yet cannot go home.

Crime and Punishment
Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky, 1866
Raskolnikov, a destitute and desperate former student, commits a random murder without remorse or regret. But gradually he finds the noose of his own guilt tightening around his neck.

King Lear
William Shakespeare, 1605
Tragedy about a rich, proud, and stubborn man who loses everything.

The Book of Job
Anonymous, ???
The 'Book of Job' has been called the most difficult book of the Bible. The numerous Exegeses of the 'Book of Job' are classic attempts to reconcile the co-existence of evil and God.

BOOKS BY J.M. COETZEE:

Disgrace
1999
After an impulsive affair with his student sours, David Lurie retreats to his daughter Lucy's isolated smallholding. For a time, his daughter's influence and the natural rhythms of the farm promise to harmonise his discordant life. He and Lucy become victims of a disturbing attack which brings into relief all their faultlines.
WHAT TO READ AFTER DISGRACE?

DOWNHILL ALL THE WAY
The Mayor of Casterbridge
Thomas Hardy, 1886
Michael Henchard is an out-of-work hay-trusser who gets drunk at a local fair and impulsively sells his wife Susan and baby daughter. Eighteen years later Susan and her daughter seek him out, only to discover that he has become the most prominent man in Casterbridge.

Beyond Sleep
Willem Frederik Hermans, 1966
A gripping tale of a man approaching breaking point set beyond the end of the civilised world.

The Bonfire of the Vanities
Tom Wolfe, 1987
One night in the Bronx a millionaire, Sherman McCoy, and his mistress have an accident. The next day a young black man is in the hospital in a coma, as McCoy heads for disaster.

SEXUAL 'CRIME' AND PUNISHMENT
The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850
The tale of a passionate woman in 17th-century Boston who challenges the system of moral authority and places belief in the higher law of her own heart.

The Human Stain
Philip Roth, 2000
Coleman Silk has a secret, one that lies at the very core of who he is, and which he has kept hidden from everyone for fifty years.

SOUTH AFRICA AND (THE LEGACY OF) APARTHEID
The Rights of Desire
André Brink, 2000
Ruben Oliver's life is coming adrift from its moorings. Retired, widower, son's emigrating, others' emigrated. Then young Tessa comes knocking, looking for a place to stay.

The House Gun
Nadine Gordimer, 1997
The orderly life of a white, middle-aged, South-African couple changes for good when their son kills one of his housemates.

Casspirs and Camparis
Etienne van Heerden, 1991
In the final years before Nelson Mandela's release from prison, many South Africans are faced with difficult choices.

A Mouthful of Glass
Henk van Woerden, 1998
A short, tough story of an assassin - the man who killed Hendrick Verwoed, the racist prime minister of South Africa, in 1966.

The Cardinals
Bessie Head, 1962 / 1993
Mouse lacks love and family, but lives for books. A newspaper job opens her eyes to real life. Johnny, a time-worn journalist, offers love and shelter, but at the price of losing her naive view of society. Can she accept that apartheid rules, and form her own loveless history?

In the Heart of the Country
1977
Stifled by the torpor of colonial South Africa and trapped in a web of reciprocal oppression, a lonely sheep farmer seeks comfort in the arms of a black concubine.
Elizabeth Costello
2003
Elizabeth Costello is a distinguished and aging Australian novelist whose life is revealed through an ingenious series of eight formal addresses.
Life and Times of Michael K
1983
In South Africa, whose civil administration is collapsing under the pressure of years of civil strife, an obscure young gardener named Michael K decides to take his mother on a long march away from the guns towards a new life in the abandoned countryside. But everywhere he goes, the war follows him.
Age of Iron
1990
In apartheid-era South Africa, a dying woman is led by a black, homeless man on an odyssey through the townships.
Waiting for the Barbarians
1980
For decades the Magistrate has run the affairs of a tiny frontier settlement, ignoring the impending war between the barbarians and the Empire, whose servant he is. But when the interrogation experts arrive, he is jolted into sympathy with the victims and into a quixotic act of rebellion which lands him in prison, branded as an enemy of the state.
Foe
1986
Susan Barton finds herself marooned on an island in the Atlantic with an Englishman named Robinson Cruso and his mute (mutilated) slave, Friday. Rescued after a year of Cruso's company, back in England with Friday in tow, she approaches the author Daniel Foe, offering him the story.
The Master of Petersburg
1994
In 1869, an exiled Russian novelist returns to St Petersburg to collect the effects of his dead stepson, Pavel. But the stepson's incriminating papers have been found by the Tsarist police and the novelist finds himself drawn into an underworld of suspicion, revolution and danger.
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