Few writers have striven to work so relentlessly within so narrow a stylistic range yet managed, as I M. Coetzee has, to sharpen that style from book to book and to use it on a broad range of superficially diverse but essentially similar subjects. Few writers, that is, have managed so successfully to turn the postmodernist’s pursuit of style and the moralist’s preoccupation with the most basic and most vexing questions of contemporary life into brilliantly conceived and brilliantly executed aesthetic wholes, political but never merely polemical, polished but never fetishized. Simple in language yet strangely opaque in meaning, Coetzee’s two novellas and five novels resemble Samuel Beckett’s fictions. Both set their works in landscapes that seem less physical than philosophical, imbued with a strange aura of allegorical significance that is intensely felt yet only vaguely defined. Seeking to give voice to the inarticulate, their works create not so much characters as disembodied voices attempting to speak themselves into existence and into the reader’s imagination in an effort to give shape and therefore meaning to the deepest and most basic human needs. Paradoxically enough, the great power these voices possess derives from the condition of powerlessness from which they speak: in Coetzee’s case, the vengeful Boer in “The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee” (1974), the obsessive researcher in “Dusklands” (1974), the young diarist in In the Heart of the Country (1977), the displaced magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), the simpleton-hero of Life & Times of Michael K (1983), Susan Barton with her seminal but suppressed version of the Robinson Crusoe story in Foe (1986), and now Mrs. Curren, whose world is not, as in these earlier works, some desert island or some South African outpost or remote farm but a Cape Town in which she comes to feel just as isolated, just as powerless, just as dispossessed, as the Kafkaesque Michael K. As a retired professor of classics with a keen interest in etymology and paronomasia, Mrs. Curren is not literally inarticulate, only unheard as she attempts to comprehend the ruin of her body, her life, and her country. Written in the form of a letter to a daughter whom she has not seen in ten years, Age of Iron includes enough dramatic events to sustain any number of conventional novels, but Coetzee’s fiction is not conventional, is not merely about police brutality, violence in the black townships, and the other signs of South Africa’s decaying social conditions. Taking a decidedly inward turn, Age of Iron becomes what all of Coetzee’s novels are: a deeply meditative examination of conscience on the conditions and consequences of living in an Age of Iron, of hearts hardened by either Calvinist doctrine or years of oppression, and hardened most of all by what Mrs. Curren calls “the shamefulness of shamelessness.” To her great credit, the bewildered, terminally ill, politically powerless Mrs. Curren does not believe herself innocent; she does not excuse herself from shame.
Age of Iron begins on the day in 1986 when the seventy-year-old Mrs. Curren learns from her doctor that she is dying of cancer. Her body has betrayed her, just as her husband did when he left her sixteen years before and as her daughter did when, in a gesture of political protest, she left South Africa for the United States six years later, vowing never to return until apartheid ended—a vow directed at the country but felt solely by her mother. Mrs. Curren in effect becomes herself an exile, as well as hostage to her daughter’s political beliefs, living under a kind of house arrest in a world from which she feels increasingly estranged: largely housebound yet nevertheless feeling homeless in her own homeland. She wants to be rescued, freed, “saved,” but is Calvinist enough never to say so except in the letter she writes (the novel we read) to her daughter—a letter she plans to send only after her death via the enigmatic messenger whose arrival constitutes another betrayal (of the small space into which she has withdrawn: her house) or, possibly, her salvation.
The stranger is a vagrant whose race, origin, and even name remain ambiguous. Mrs. Curren finds it easier to settle on a name (Vercueil is the one she adopts, though Verkuil and Verskuil she believes equally likely) than on determining his purpose in her life, his meaning in the story of a dying woman. Is he an “annunciation,” an angel of death, a carrion bird, an “heir,” or just some squatter whom she happens to find almost literally on her doorstep, like an abandoned child, the day she returns from her doctor? Whatever his name and whatever his race and whatever his reason for manifesting himself in her life at this particular and certainly portentous moment, Vercueil simply, silently, and ambiguously is: an inexplicable presence ready to take what he is given but not at all grateful for what he gets, merely indifferent, more an object than a man, but minimally human nevertheless. The relationship between Vercueil and Mrs. Curren, whose driver he becomes, bears a certain superficial similarity to that of the black man and the well-to-do Jewish widow in the 1989 film Driving Miss Daisy In the film, sentimentalism triumphs; in the novel, complexity and uncertainty. Against the film’s willed and all-too-easy affirmations, Age of iron posits the earned but uncertain hope born of the need to speak and be heard. Failing to offer up a happy ending, the novel, unlike the film, discomforts the reader in much the same way Vercueil does Mrs. Curren. Like the doctor’s prognosis, the news may not be good but it must be...
(The entire section is 2336 words.)