Age of Iron

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Throughout his short but distinguished career, South African novelist J.M. Coetzee has expressed the need to speak, as it were, the unspoken, what may well be unspeakable: apartheid, of course, but also that which appears to lie beyond speech, a something which may be felt but not articulated, perhaps not even understood. Appropriately, then, the South Africa of AGE OF IRON exists as more than a world of racial division, police brutality, and roaming gangs, smoldering with hatred, drowning in its own blood. More than a place, it serves as a moral landscape, the locus of a vaguely defined but intensely felt allegorical significance. Coetzee’s prose matches his sense of place. Incremental yet involuted, opaque yet resonant, intimate yet strangely detached, its simplicity masks a surprising complexity of thought which links its narrator, the seventy-year-old Mrs. Curren, to the disembodied voices of Samuel Beckett’s plays and fictions.

Set in Cape Town, the novel begins on the day Mrs. Curren, a retired classics professor, learns that her cancer is terminal and, returning home, finds the vagrant Vercueil squatting on her property. Betrayed by her body, fearful of the outside world, and alone, abandoned years before by her husband, she begins a letter to her daughter, who left South Africa for America ten years earlier. Much of that letter concerns her efforts to understand the cancer which she, like a mother and like her country, carries within, and it...

(The entire section is 476 words.)