Age of Iron
My Son’s Story
J.M. Coetzee’s new novel is more overtly about apartheid than any others he has written, and about the shame of living with it. The word “shame” throbs through the text like a recurrent pain. The principal character thinks she is dying of it: “I have cancer from the accumulation of shame I have endured in my life,” she says. “That is how cancer comes about: from self-loathing the body turns malignant and begins to eat away at itself.” Mrs. Curren is a liberal, a retired teacher of classics at Cape Town University, She lives alone. Her divorced husband is dead. Her only child emigrated to America years ago, vowing never to set foot in South Africa so long as the existing regime remained in power. Mrs. Curren yearns for her daughter and writes to her all the time, an endless letter not to be sent until after her own death. The letter is the book.
Age of Iron begins with her return from the doctor, who has told her that her cancer has spread to the bone and is terminal. As she parks her car she sees a vagrant sleeping in a cardboard box behind the garage—“an unsavoury smell about him: urine, sweet wine, moldy clothing, and something else too. Unclean.” She tries to get rid of him, but he returns with his dog. Reluctantly, Mrs. Curren feeds him. He is an alcoholic with a crippled hand. Uncommunicative and uncooperative, he won’t help around the place or earn a little money, and this irritates Mrs. Curren. Still, he is useful: he can push her old car which doesn’t start by itself. So with no enthusiasm on either side, he becomes her constant companion: she has to take him along wherever she goes. In the course of the novel a grouchy symbiosis develops between the derelict and the old woman, and when she finally dies he is the one entrusted to mail the manuscript to her daughter.
The man’s name is Vercueil, which could be Afrikaner or Huguenot. He has long, greasy black hair and green eyes: I thought he was meant to be a Coloured (who often have European names); but Professor Parrinder, reviewing the novel recently in the London Review of Books, thinks he is white. It seems just possible that Coetzee has deliberately left his color in doubt. Vercueil’s chief characteristic is idleness, and in Coetzee’s volume on White Writing (in and about South Africa), he has an arresting Foucault-Inspired essay called “Idleness in South Africa”: he shows that from the year of the country’s settlement in 1652 until the present day, foreign observers were scandalized by the idleness of the inhabitants—first black, then white as well. The Dutch Calvinists were shocked by the Hottentots’ sloth and by their—to Europeans—disgusting personal habits. But soon they themselves succumbed to sloth. By the nineteenth century, “the true scandal…was not the idleness of the Boers,” Coetzee claims: