Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Age of IronAge of Iron by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have been torn while reading J.M. Coetzee's "Age of Iron" (it is the ninth book by this author that I have read) - my reactions oscillated from extreme awe to slight irritation. The novel contains so many passages of unparalleled wisdom, depth, and beauty, yet it is marred by a few instances of sermonizing preachiness.

Elizabeth Curren, a professor of classics in Cape Town, South Africa, is in the last stage of terminal cancer. She finds a homeless man, Mr. Vercueil, in the alley next to her garage. With her tacit approval, he kind of takes residence on her property. This is 1986, a dramatic time for South Africa, the time of burning townships and violent clashes between anti-apartheid fighters and the police aided by conservative activists. Mrs. Curren finds her domestic's son shot dead and a friend of his takes refuge in her house. Isolated from the harsh realities throughout her life, she discovers the true horrors of apartheid in her last weeks.

The novel, framed as a long letter to Mrs. Curren's daughter who escaped South Africa in 1976 and settled comfortably in the United States, has four central themes: the psychology of dying, the relationship between Mrs. Curren and the homeless man, the savagery caused by the apartheid system, and the juxtaposition of the wise reason of the old and the mindless fervor of the young.

The first two themes, the personal ones, are dealt with in an absolutely masterful way, typical for Mr. Coetzee. If the novel stopped there, I would need a six-star rating to give it justice. The two latter themes are different. The author vividly portrays the extreme drama of South Africa, yet I have some problems with the "paint-by-numbers" plot. The fourth theme, the young versus the old, emotion versus reason, feeling versus knowing, is largely conveyed through Mrs. Curren's monologues (since her conversation partner does not talk back), which makes the deep truths stated sound a little preachy. Still, Mrs. Curren is a classics professor, and speaking in perfectly complete paragraphs is what classics professors do best.

"Age of Iron" is an extremely dark book, even darker than Mr. Coetzee's other works. The heavy darkness is needed here, though. How else could one deal with impending death and with massive degradation of one's fellow human beings? Yet it is in no way a depressing novel. Mrs. Curren's involvement with anti-apartheid movement moves her thoughts away from the terrifying prospect of soon not existing any more. Helping others adds meaning to her ending life. Also, there is a beautifully captured fleeting moment of hope late in the novel and the last passages, despite death being near, are wonderfully uplifting.

Even with its weaknesses "Age of Iron" is a great book. The average of six stars for the first two themes and three-and-a-half stars for the latter two is

Four-and-three-quarter stars.

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