Second Glance: A Weight that Won’t Go Away
By J.M. Coetzee
I first read the 1990 novel Age of Iron during the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. J.M. Coetzee’s story of an old dying South African woman writing a letter to her daughter in America concerns the brutalities of the apartheid regime. The work of art and the work of nature seemed correlative. Both brought out the best and worst in human beings, but while the media fed the public scattershot images of the Superdome and people struggling through the floodwaters with everything they owned, Coetzee had shaped his litany of destruction into a finely beveled jewel of prose.
Age of Iron is situated exactly in the middle of Coetzee’s writing career. The sixth of eleven novels, it was published sixteen years after his first and seventeen before his most recent. While overshadowed by the prize winners Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) and The Life and Times of Michael K (1983), of the three it offers the least allegorical picture of then present-day South Africa. Places and neighborhoods are named more frequently, and the main character, the former classics professor Mrs. Curren, lives in a modest neighborhood, on the margins of the more troubled sections of the country. Out of Coetzee’s first six novels, three were written from a first person point of view of a woman—a trope of ventriloquism that reaches an apex in this third go around. The 200 page novel is in the form of letter in which Mrs. Curren chronicles her last days and tries to make sense of her warring South Africa, a world filled by propaganda, torment and unjust imprisonments.
The ‘story’ Mrs. Curren relates to her daughter begins and ends with a homeless black man, Mr. Vercueil. One day he appears, sets up some boxes and resides on Mrs. Curren’s Cape Town property with his timid dog. The widow Mrs. Curren, dying of cancer, inexplicably lets them stay to the consternation of her neighbors and Florence, her housekeeper. Florence also has two little girls and her fifteen-year-old son Bheki, plus two cats—all of whom stay at the house for a spell early in the novel.
While Vercueil remains a ghostly presence throughout, disappearing and reappearing as his mood points him, Mrs. Curren dissects her relationship to her country. In the opening chapters she contemplates her sedentary, retired life:
Television. Why do I watch it? The parade of politicians every evening: I have only to see the heavy, blank faces so familiar since childhood to feel gloom and nausea. The bullies in the last row of school desks, raw-boned, lumpish boys, grown up now and promoted to rule the land. They with their fathers and mothers, their aunts and uncles, their brothers and sisters: a locust horde, a plague of black locusts infesting the country, munching without cease, devouring lives. Why, in a spirit of horror and loathing, do I watch them? Why do I let them into the house? Because the reign of the locust family is the truth of South Africa, and the truth is what makes me sick? Legitimacy they no longer trouble to claim. Reason they have shrugged off. What absorbs them is power and the stupor of power. Eating and talking, munching lives, belching. Slow, heavy-bellied talk. Sitting in a circle, debating ponderously, issuing decrees like hammer blows: death, death, death. Untroubled by stench. Heavy eyelids, piggish eyes, shrewd with the shrewdness of generations of peasants. Plotting against each other too: slow peasant plots that take decades to mature. The new Africans, pot-bellied, heavy-jowled men on their stools of office: Cetshwayo, Dingane in white skins. Pressing downward: their power in their weight. Huge bull testicles pressing down on their wives, their children, pressing the spark out of them. In their own hearts no spark of fire left. Sluggish hearts, heavy as blood pudding.
The parade of animal and insect imagery in this passage is astounding. The politicians are the ‘locust horde’ that ‘munch’ lives. They have ‘piggish eyes’ and their ‘huge bull testicles’ suffocate their families. Weight is the central conceit of this passage, indeed the whole work—the ‘Iron’ of the title, that silver-white unyielding substance. Coetzee encases his metaphor in a poetic language where every syllable has the smack of a fist. ‘Sluggish hearts, heavy as blood pudding’. A quiet terror lives in this line and the beauty of the prose makes its dark forecast all the more frightening—the ‘weight’ crescendos in those heavy, sluggish hearts that pump in a fatty substance like pudding, but a pudding basted in blood South Africa spills everyday in the name of oppressive apartheid.
A scene from the middle of the book examines this wretched practice. It is a set piece of horrors, twenty pages of a journey into darkness. Mrs. Curren accompanies her housekeeper Florence to find the woman’s young son Bheki, who had recently gone missing. A call comes in the middle of a rainy night and they drive to a black ghetto township, a war zone:
We were at the rear of a crowd hundreds strong looking down upon a scene of devastation: shanties burnt and smoldering, shanties still burning, pouring forth black smoke. Jumbles of furniture, bedding, household objects stood in the pouring rain. Gangs of men were at work trying to rescue the contents of burning shacks, going from one to another, putting out the fires; or so I thought till with a shock it came to me that these were no rescuers but incendiaries, that the battle I saw them waging was not with the flames but with the rain.
The reversal of fortune in the last sentence has a terrifying effect. The reader is at first thankful ‘gangs of men’ are rescuing things only to have that hope erased when Mrs. Curren realizes they are the incendiaries themselves. This is a hell—what other word can describe men battling with the rain to keep alive a fire? The torment of the scene continues with a painfully intent pace:
A man in a black overcoat swung an ax. With a crash a window burst. He attacked the door, which caved in at the third blow. As if released from a cage, a woman with a baby in her arms flew out of the house, followed by three barefoot children. He let them pass. Then he began to hack at the doorframe.
The worst is rendered simply: subject, verb, direct object, indirect object. Mrs. Curren, along with the crowd of ‘mourners,’ can hardly watch:
A girl, an enormously fat teenager, shouldered me out of her way. “Damn you!” I gasped as I fell. “Damn you!” she gasped back, glaring with naked animosity. “Get out! Get out!” And she toiled up the duneside, her huge backside quaking.
Again Coetzee emphasizes weight, this time the physical weight of a teenager some fifty years younger than Mrs. Curren, who is out of her academic element dominated by words and ideas. Here and in many other sections of the novel the color of her skin is the incendiary that angers both black and white. Whites yell at her for bothering about the other race that must be squashed and blacks excoriate her for inquiries on their behalf. Words may start wars but brutality continues and wins them.
The frail image of a twiggy old woman standing the face of such horrors shows the anarchy in her country, just a twenty-minute ride from her home, but Mrs. Curren’s being there isn’t a mistake. She has decided the children are the most important lives in this war. Cancer is eating away at her but she insists on finding Bheki, a young boy he has known since he was a baby. And she does find him. His bullet ridden body is laid out in a hall with four others. His eyes remain open. It is the worst thing she has ever seen in her life. Mrs. Curren wonders what could have been his last sight on earth. The former classics professor romanticizes death in trying to find answers where there are none. Coetzee has recreated the dark scenario Gloucester characterizes in King Lear: ‘Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord, in palaces, treason, and the bond cracked ‘twixt son and father.’
In Age of Iron the bond is between mother and daughter, and in the final pages as Mrs. Curren nears her death and she clutches to the hope Vercueil will post this long letter (the novel) to her daughter, a bitterness encroaches. It is borne from the deaths of Bheki and another harrowing event near the end. When a friend of Bheki’s shows up looking for guns in the boy’s former room, Mrs. Curren takes him in for a day and tries to talk him out of the unceasing cycle of revenge killings. She wants him to have a future, maybe even a family. But he won’t listen. Later he is trapped in the house by police. They pull Mrs. Curren out and shoot the boy dead.
With no one left except Vercueil, Mrs. Curren explodes into a Lear-like rage against her daughter, chastising her move to America. She looks at a picture of her two grandsons (whom she has barely met) in a canoe, around them an idyllic American natural landscape. Her eyes wander away from their faces and settle on the background—lake ripples, the green fir trees and the two orange life jackets around the boy’s bodies:
The dull, bland sheen of their surfaces quite hypnotizes me. Rubber or plastic or something in between: some substance coarse to the touch, tough. Why is it that this material, foreign to me, foreign perhaps to humankind, shaped, sealed, inflated, tied to the bodies of your children, signifies so intensely for me the world you now live in, and why does it make my spirit sink? …it dispirits me that your children will never drown. All those lakes, all that water: a land of lakes and rivers: yet if by some mischance they ever tip out of their canoe, they will bob safely in the water, supported by their bright orange wings, till a motorboat comes to pick them up and bear them off and all is well again.
Weight is overwhelming Mrs. Curren in her homeland but her grandchildren are unsinkable. The differences between the countries eat at her and perhaps she castigates her daughter because she has succeeded in leaving a wasteland and making it in the world’s most privileged society:
You say you will have no more children. The line runs out, then, in these two boys, seed planted in the American snows, who will never drown, whose life expectancy is seventy-five and rising. Even I, who live on the shores where the waters swallow grown men, where life expectancy declines every year, am having a death without illumination. What can these two poor underprivileged boys paddling about in their recreation area hope for? They will die at seventy-five or eighty-five as stupid as when they were born.
That willfully ironic ‘underprivileged’ is a caustic reference to the soullessness of the two boys, as Mrs. Curren sees it, to their safe, lifejacketed lives. Theirs is a weight that won’t sink but floats freely. This is an indictment of America—its culture and its vaunted, overprotective family life. The rich of the world live in a contained and content amusement park where drinking enough red wine to slow aging and finding a quiet, peaceful forest devoid of all wildlife save squirrels and birds are the main concerns. Keeping everything afloat and safe—whether it is dying or leisure.
Is Mrs. Curren’s ‘a death without illumination?’ She cannot solve South Africa’s problem and only hopes for comfort from her own in these dying days. These confessions are the anger and pain of losing family and having no familiar soul around as one gets old and dies except Vercueil. Many times she tells of how she wanted to ask her daughter to come back to her, even for a few weeks, but held herself back to not be nuisance. (Her daughter had told her that even if she asked her, she would return). Is there no illumination because there is so much regret?
In the end Vercueil does offer some comfort. After all the death she has witnessed, Mrs. Curren wanders off and finds shelter beneath an overpass. A gang threatens her but Vercueil appears and saves her. She becomes more dependant on him in her last days, as he even washes her underwear.
Mrs. Curren is neither hero nor anti-hero. She is witness. She can’t make sense of her country and gradually it dawns that she is somewhat responsible for the way things are. Indeed she tells her daughter that she writes her, “not so that you will feel for me, but so that you will learn how things are.”
Mrs. Curren’s letter is a cautionary one, but it is a wish fulfilled for anyone in an intimate relationship who has kept their deepest feelings silent. The reader can only imagine her unnamed daughter reaching into the mailbox one day and pulling out a mysteriously thick package. The pages have a trace, a stench of a bloody, unjust world—the reverse negative of where the daughter resides. Perhaps Mrs. Curren’s attempt at explaining herself to her daughter will be accepted. Coetzee has never been an author bent on providing answers. He presents a world for the reader to get dirty in and feel the weight of words. His novels begin with a small question and end with a much bigger one.
Hurricane Katrina gave America a taste of chaos it rarely sees. Minorities and the poor dominated the national headlines for a few weeks as we saw an intolerable situation become more miserable. Age of Iron continues to interest me because of the way a person of the intelligentsia abandons her apathy and goes to the crime scene, goes to the fires burning her country and people. The hurricane forced us to look at what we don’t like to see or think about. Like Mrs. Curren examining the dead Bheki, we had to reflect on our country, our culture, and our mortality as New Orleans imploded.
There are many important stories to be fashioned out of the horror of Apartheid – Age of Iron is as essential as Life and Times of Michael K or Disgrace.
Greg Gerke is the author of the story collection There’s Something Wrong with Sven. His work has or will appear in Gargoyle, Fourteen Hills and Waccamaw.