For a man, the challenge of writing a first person narrative with a woman’s voice is fraught with disaster. A presumptuous risk. But Coetzee adds three elements to make it nearly impossible: the woman is in an aging, brittle body, she is dying of cancer, and she lives alone in Cape Town during the final ghastly decade of apartheid, coming face to face with a reality she had never permitted herself to encounter.
Age of Iron (1990) is composed as the letter of a dying mother to her daughter who has fled South Africa and its burdens for America and a better life. As Elizabeth Curren wages the battles of aging, dying and living alone in fear, her own personal “angel of death”, a tramp named Vercueil, appears within her property. He becomes her companion to the end: the one with whom she works out her final scenes.
The chaos of apartheid and predicted revolutions are such that she tells her daughter:
“Since life in this country is so much like life aboard a sinking ship, one of those old-time liners with a lugubrious drunken captain and a surly crew and leaky lifeboats, I keep the shortwave radio at my bedside.” In her fear and certainty of disaster, she clings to the thing which will announce the end, bring the bad news, and break her heart.
Elizabeth’s letter becomes many things: accusation, lament, dirge, eulogy. Her quiet world, ordered and cleaned by her maid, Veronica, is broken open. When Veronica’s son is in a bicycle accident, the other boy is taken to the hospital and disappears into the medical bureaucratic maze. He is simply nowhere. Seeking a child evading police is not what Elizabeth had on her bucket list after the cancer diagnosis.
When she chides Bheki, Veronica’s son, for hanging out rather than attending the bantu education school provided by the government, he retorts: “What is more important, that apartheid must be destroyed or that I must go to school?” The realization dawns that the assumptions and foundations for her life and her country’s existence are precarious. She has long felt the nagging unease of the disparity of whites and blacks, but becoming entangled in their lives and problems brought on by her system gives her a chance to be one person making a difference.
During a rambling, circuitous drive in the township, she reflects on the contrast between her childhood (long sun-struck afternoons, the smell of dust under avenues of eucalyptus, prelude of what was meant to be a life without trouble) and that of the ten-year old urchin commandeered to give directions (a child of the times, at home in this landscape of violence). These seeming asides are where Coetzee’s power come through: his mastery of the word and sensory evocation draw us into the withering, breaking heart of Elizabeth. Even as she fights the system and her cancer, and aging, she rages indictment against those creators of the Age of Iron. Comparing them to bloated grasshoppers, she says:
“What absorbs them is power and the stupor of power. Eating, talking, munching lives, belching. Slow, heavy-bellied talk. Sitting in a circle, debating ponderously, issuing decrees like hammer-blows: death, death, death. Untroubled by the stench. . . . The new Africans, pot-bellied, heavy-jowled men on their stools of office: Cetshwayo, Dingane in white skins.”
The title, Age of Iron is reminiscent of empires which imposed iron rule, extending authority which was heartlessly efficient and brutal. The Romans, the Nazis, Stalin . . . history’s examples of power run amok and people dehumanized in the progression.
Coetzee does not allow apartheid the entire screen, however; Elizabeth is suffering from a cancer in her body, just as South Africa is infected with a cancer in its land. Elizabeth knows she will die. Mentally she accepts it, then she suddenly feels “the shock of pain that goes through me when, in an unguarded moment, a vision overtakes me of this house, empty, with sunlight pouring through the windows onto an empty bed, or of False Bay under blue skies, pristine, deserted--when the world I have passed my life in manifests itself to me and I am not of it.” Was this the sudden vision of whites in those days when “black on black” violence seemed to become the norm?
For lovers of words, Coetzee is a master craftsman. He picks them up, looks at the sun shine through them, turns them around and upside down until we are dazed by their incandescence and depth of meaning.
Elizabeth is a well-educated woman who desires to share the wealth of knowledge she was blessed with by her heritage. Although it falls flat on Vercueil, Veronica, and Bheki, it is those words (written to her daughter) that convey the emotion of the lament, bringing reality to the tragedy that is unfolding in her South Africa.
Referring to the message of the oppressors (the arguments and vain rationalizations of apartheid), she philosophizes: “Their message stupidly unchanging, stupidly forever the same. Their feat, after years of etymological meditation on the word, to have raised stupidity to a virtue. To stupefy: to deprive of feeling: to benumb, deaden; to stun with amazement. Stupor: insensibility, apathy, torpor of mind. Stupid: dulled in the faculties, indifferent, destitute of thought or feeling. From stupere to be stunned, astounded. A gradient from stupid to stunned to astonished, to be turned to stone. . . .A message that turns people to stone.”
Searing as these words are, Coetzee has chosen to lash at the mindlessness, thoughtlessness, the insensibility that turns hearts to stone. He does not rant and accuse the people (who uphold the system by their silence) for deliberate cruelty and intentional torture and murder of their fellows. Rather, through the rasping of a dying old woman, he turns her whine into a coherent voice. He draws us to the deep issues which lie side by side with the shallow ones of our daily chatter. How can we not see what is right in front of us?