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:
The history of idleness in South Africa is not a side issue or a curiosity. One need only look at the face of South African labour in the twentieth century to confirm this. The idleness of the Boer is still there in taboos on certain grades of manual work (hotnotswerk, kafferwerk), as well as in rituals of leisure indistinguishable from idleness (sitting on the porch, lying on the beach). The idleness of the native is still present in a tradition of over-employment and underpayment, maintained from both sides of the fence…. The luxurious idleness of the settler is still denounced from Europe, the idleness of the native still deplored by his master.
And Coetzee concludes:
I hope that I have opened a way to the reading of idleness since 1652 as an authentically native response to a foreign way of life, a response that has rarely been defended in writing….
Vercueil could be read as its defense in fiction, but only if you have read the essay on idleness: the man comes across not as a specimen or a symbol, but as an individual with eschatological implications: the angel of death. Physically he is only too real—filthy, clumsy, smelly, hawking, snoring, spitting. His inner life is inscrutable, but never in doubt. Coetzee likes to write about primitive characters who hang loose on the society where fate has placed them: the barbarian girl in Waiting for the Barbarians, the simpleton Michael K in The Life and Times of Michael K, and now Vercueil. But whereas the reader is let into Michael K’s consciousness and experiences his life and times from his point of view, Vercueil is as opaque as the barbarian girl.
All three have physical defects: the girl has been lamed and partly blinded by her captors, Michael K has a harelip, and Vercueil his crippled hand. Their defects may be intended as symbols (like Mrs. Curren’s cancer: she has already had a breast removed), but you sense a compulsion to write about them. Both Michael K and Vercueil have inappropriately remained virgins through a tragic combination of incompetence and detachment. The old, dying, and disfigured Mrs. Curren initiates Vercueil out of pity for his condition: an act performed and described in such a low-key, matter-of-fact manner that the shock and the scandal of it have a delayed effect. This is typical of Coetzee’s method: his prose is rich with marvelous descriptive detail and illuminating poetic metaphor; but its pace is even and resigned, like an army on the march: it’s not until it has disappeared over the horizon that the devastation begins to tell.
Mrs. Curren is not exactly a female Saint Julian: her relationship with Vercueil is reciprocal; but the thought of the saint and the leper must be meant to cross one’s mind and probably crossed hers, filled as it is with learned references and snatches of Thucydides and Virgil. She is not so much concerned with saintliness as with heroism: “I have been a good person,” she says. “I freely confess to it. I am a good person still. What times these are when to be a good person is not enough!… What the times call for is quite different from goodness. The times call for heroism.” She does not aspire to heroism, although there is something heroic about her refusal to bother her daughter with her dying. She has never been an activist and does not like to be thought of as a do-gooder. She believes in life and happiness and hates both the Calvinist puritanism of the Afrikaners and the revolutionary puritanism of the young blacks committed to liberation by violence. She is always lecturing her servant on the subject; her didactic streak is an endearing déformation professionelle:
The more you give in, Florence, the more outrageously the children will behave. You told me you admire your son’s generation because they are afraid of nothing. Be careful: they may start by being careless of their own lives and end by being careless of everyone else’s. What you admire in them is not necessarily what is best.
But she realizes that “Florence had no desire to be preached to”; neither does Vercueil. Mrs. Curren accepts their contempt for her high-minded, sometimes semimystical ramblings about love and humanity, motherhood and death. She is a sharp old thing, and her deflationary self-irony never sleeps for long. That is what makes her an attractive heroine, along with her casual goodness and her scholar’s compulsion to go after truth and examine and face it.
Florence is the perfect servant, supremely conscientious and hardworking, but dour. Mrs. Curren is not in her confidence. Florence doesn’t tell her the true names of her children, or that Mr. Thabane, whom she calls her cousin, is really her brother and a leading activist. Mr. Thabane sells shoes: he was once a school teacher, but was dismissed.
Terrible things happen. Florence’s son Bheki takes part in a school-children’s strike organized by Mr. Thabane against a system of education that prepares them only to be slaves. Shortly afterward two policemen contrive a road accident outside Mrs. Curren’s house: fifteen-year-old Bheki and his friend John are severely injured. A little later Mrs. Curren witnesses the police burn and sack the township where Florence lives, and sees Bheki’s body neatly laid out in a row with other murdered school-children. She thinks of driving her car to Government House and setting herself alight in it as the noonday gun goes off. She is dying anyway: “I want to sell myself, redeem myself.” Vercueil eggs her on.
“I was outraged. But was I fair to him? It seems to me now,” she writes much later, when death is very close and the failed immolation long past, “that he has no more conception of death than a virgin has of sex. But the same curiosity. The curiosity of a dog that sniffs at one’s crotch, wagging its tail, its tongue hanging out red and stupid as a penis.” But it is Vercueil who aborts the suicide by getting drunk and angry and throwing away the car key as they wait for noon to come.
After Bheki’s death Mrs. Curren allows his friend John to hide in her house. The police arrive, surround his bolthole, and shoot him down. The beastliness of his killing is emphasized by the presence of a friendly policewoman whose job it is to try and remove the sick old woman from the scene with a display of caring solicitude. By this time Mrs. Curren is very ill and in great pain, but wrapped in her pink quilt she escapes from the policewoman and runs into the town. She collapses under an overpass. Vercueil finds her and carries her home. She needs stronger pills: they make her hallucinate, but the pain is still there. Vercueil offers to kill her. She won’t let him, but she asks if his dog can share her bed to keep her warm.
“He won’t stay. He sleeps where I sleep.”
“Then sleep here too.”
And so he does, and she doesn’t mind his smell anymore and dies in his arms.
One can, of course, read her death as a metaphor for the doom of liberalism in South Africa: the age of iron has set in, there is no possibility left for reconciliatory solutions. But Age of Iron is about dying as much as it is about apartheid, and that raises it above the level of a political novel or a roman a thèse, and gives resonance to the political message: except that there is no message, nothing to be learned—only disgust and grief and, of course, shame. Coetzee is an extraordinarily powerful writer, and sadness is his strongest suit. The sadness grips like frost; by the last page one is numb with it.
Nadine Gordimer’s new novel is sad, too. It had to be, since, like all her previous novels, it is about politics in South Africa. She supports the ANC: in a recent interview she said, “I have not risked my life for liberation. But I’ve done what I thought I ought to do; what I was capable of.” My Son’s Story is about people who do risk their lives, but manage not to lose them. Sonny is a schoolteacher in a Coloured ghetto. Like Mr. Thabane, he is sacked when he leads his pupils in a strike against apartheid. It is his first political gesture: until then, he has been law-abiding, believing in education, not revolution. Sonny and his wife are not black, but Coloured: respectable, committed to self-improvement and to serving their community. Aila is beautiful and lady-like, nicely dressed, and a fastidious housekeeper. Their son, Will (named after Shakespeare), is a studious boy; their daughter, Baby, is a crazy little teen-ager: a suburban family from a cornflakes ad. Coloureds can be upwardly mobile up to a point; blacks can only protest and conspire. After the strike Sonny commits himself to fighting apartheid; he is arrested and sent to jail. He comes out a hero, appears on platforms, and moves up in the ANC hierarchy (and down again later in the story: Gordimer does not idealize party politics). On orders from the party, the family moves into a white neighborhood to test the water. Their new neighbors seem unmoved, friendly rather than hostile. Still, in the end a crowd of white thugs burns down their house and nobody tries to stop them.
That is the final incident. In the meantime, Baby has stopped chasing boys, secretly joined the ANC, and fled to Lusaka where she works for it. She marries and has a child. Aila flies out frequently to see her: neither Sonny nor Will realizes that their gentle, domesticated wife and mother is acting as a courier for the ANC. They discover it when Aila is arrested and about to go on trial. On her lawyer’s advice, she jumps bail and flees the country. Will and Sonny are left alone in the neglected family house. Their relationship has been edgy.
The story is told by Will, the only member of the family who is not politicized. From his angle it is not so much a political saga as a family romance:
It’s an old story—ours. My father’s and mine. Love, love/hate are the most common and universal of experiences. But no two are alike, each is a fingerprint of life. That’s the miracle that makes literature and links it with creation itself in the biological sense.
Will is still a schoolboy when he discovers his father has a white mistress. Hannah is an earnest, large-faced girl with thick, freckled legs, who monitored Sonny’s trial on behalf of the human rights organization she works for. The affair is rooted in mutual commitment to the cause of anti-apartheid. Will is angry with his father, but discreet. He grows closer and more protective toward his mother. His idea of his own status in the family suffers a blow when he discovers that his silly sister is a serious revolutionary, and a worse one when his mother turns out to be not a fragile flower, but a woman leading a dangerous, clandestine life in which he has no part. Sonny suffers in a similar manner when Aila appears in the dock: she has usurped his status as a hero at a time when he is no longer very important in the hierarchy of the movement. Besides, the discovery of what Aila really is undercuts the raison d’être of his affair with Hannah. It is over anyway: Hannah is promoted to the headquarters of her organization in Ethiopia.
My Son’s Story is about idealism and conspiracy: at times it’s almost a political thriller, exciting to read. It is also about relationships within a family, about a boy growing up, a couple growing apart. These passages read like the case histories invented by earnest social psychology columnists. On the other hand, the reportage (of a township massacre, for instance) is gripping and disturbing. The interplay of private and political affairs is carefully thought out. There are no bad joins. The structure, in fact, is brilliant. But not the writing. It lumbers to and fro between jargon-strangled solemnity and breathless pulp-speak. Here is Hannah reflecting on a trial:
Such inconceivable decisions [to refuse amnesty and choose prison] are beyond the capacity of anyone who does not make one. The spirit’s shouldering of the world, as Atlas’s muscles took on the physical weight of the world. Such people cannot be monitored. But knowing them and their families, who have this abnormal—Hannah, speaking of it once with Sonny, corrects herself—no, not abnormal, can’t use that word for it—that divine strength expands the emotional resources of an ordinary individual (like Hannah) even in grasping that it does exist.
Things are worse when Sonny and Hannah are actually in bed together. Still, My Son’s Story is not just a worthy book: it’s a good read and good journalism. It informs and explains. But it’s too banal and too explicit to be good art.