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Age of Iron by J.M. Coetzee

Age of Iron (1990)

by J.M. Coetzee

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Mrs. Curran is dying of cancer. Opposed all her life to the system of apartheid but sheltered from the realities of the cruelty imposed, she is now faced with results that the system has brought. As black townships are burnt, she faces the cancer that is killing her country, turning the souls of the young to iron and ravaging her body. This is not a happy uplifting book but one that makes you think and examine life and injustice. Coetzee has become one of my favourite authors and I’ll certainly be reading more of his work in the future. ( )
  mlbelize | Jan 27, 2014 |
Reading this book felt like a vision of the end of days. As the apartheid regime in South Africa was fighting its final losing battles, Mrs Curren, a classics professor, received a terminal diagnosis. A true stoic, she thanked her physician and made her way home, where she anticipated being able to break down in private. The professor had lived alone for many years. Her marriage was long over, her only child had married and moved to the US. Privacy was not to be, however. Arriving home, she discovered a vagrant and his dog had set up a shelter in the alley next to her garage.

"Two things, then, in the space of an hour: the news, long dreaded, and this reconnaissance, this other annunciation. The first of the carrion birds, prompt, unerring...The scavengers of Cape Town, whose number never dwindles... Cleaners-up after the feast. Flies, dry-winged, glazen-eyed, pitiless. My heirs."

Wishing to keep her mental and physical pain to herself, but desperately wanting to confide in someone, Mrs Curren took the scholarly route, deciding to pour out thoughts, events and feelings in a journal/letter to her daughter. There were no plans to notify that daughter of the illness and prognosis; she merely hoped that the missive would somehow be sent to her once she herself had died.

Through her letter we see her inevitable deterioration, the struggle to manage pain yet stay alert, her battle to come to terms with her own demise, and the idea of her physical world continuing on without her. This personal struggle is lived against the background of a city and country descending into chaos. Accepting the need to have someone around, if only nominally, she allowed the vagrant Vercueil to stay. Vercueil was like a feral dog, happy to have food and shelter, occasionally accepting of company, but always living on his own terms. Knowing she will never discover if he carries out her request or not, she eventually entrusted him with the mailing of the letter.

There were others living on the property. Mrs Curren also had house help in the form of Florence, a black woman from the townships. Florence had been away when Vercueil appeared and it seems unlikely he would have been allowed to squat had she been there. Florence lived in the back with her two young daughters. Soon her fifteen year old son also moved in, for the schools had closed and she would not leave him alone in the townships to get into trouble.

Trouble came to them though. Mrs Curren learned far more than she had ever imagined or wanted to know about the impact of apartheid on those surrounding her. While she had always been against the regime, seeing its collapse at first hand in her own domain challenged many of her long held beliefs about the very basis of society. Knowing she did not have the time or resources to think these things through is one more devastation for someone who had always been able to hold things together.

Coetzee's constrained writing style combined with Mrs Curren's restraint, makes her a far more powerful character than a more emotional person would have been in the same circumstances, for loss of self control is that much more of a betrayal to someone who had always reined herself in and curtailed her feelings. And just as Mrs Curren sought to conceal her illness from her daughter, chronicling it in secret, so the South African state sought to conceal its demise from newspapers, television and radio, while carrying out its own clandestine operations. This pairing of individual and national doom gives a picture of decline that's impossible to forget.

"Did these things really happen? Yes, these things happened. There is no more to be said about it. "
4 vote SassyLassy | Oct 25, 2013 |
A J.M. Coetzee book that I have had for a while.

Mrs. Curren is living alone, dying from cancer. As she sees the end of her life, she finally faces up to the reality around her, in the final days of Apartheid. It all starts with a homeless black man setting up shop on her property, Vercueil makes Curren feel uncomfortable, forcing her to see what has always been there. Curren writes to her daughter, long since living in the States, a sort of self-justification of her life.

As with his other books, Coetzee scrutinises South African society, the reality of life under Apartheid - the racism, the violence, but also the humanity. Curren could be many of us. Coetzee gets under the reader's skin, forcing them to think, for example - are those who don't actively condemn injustice as culpable as those who perpetrate it? ( )
  soffitta1 | Mar 23, 2012 |
J.M. Coetzee is slowly but surely becoming a favorite author of mine. His prose is so carefully paced and lovingly based in detail that each book reads nearly as a collection of paintings and images as much as a novel. Her work is somewhat reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje's novels at times, and I find that I'm consistently fascinated with the characters created in each tale--this was no exception.

In the course of what is primarily a single long letter to a far-away daughter, and a letter which the author sees as a goodbye, Coetzee here weaves a narrator based in a single woman's struggle to make peace with her own body's deterioration and her interaction with a reluctant set of companions. Each character is so carefully created as to be full and believable, even in the little dialogue that readers experience. About politics, about love, about struggle, and about the body's paths forward in an eclectic world, this novel is a quiet masterpiece well worth the time. ( )
1 vote whitewavedarling | Jul 2, 2011 |
Post-war Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann writes in her poem “Always Among Words”:Between a word and a thingyou only encounter yourself,lying between eachas if next to someone ill,never being able to get to either,tasting a sound and a body,and relishing bothIn many ways, the female narrator in J. M. Coetzee’s novel Age of Iron, an aging retired classics professor dying of breast cancer, expresses this problem of words and meaning, of speech and understanding. As she struggles throughout the novel to express her love for an absent daughter and her own outrage at the injustices of South Africa’s apartheid, she encounters anger, tragedy, and sorrow. Through her friendship with a vagrant named Mr. Verceuil, however, she affirms that the most meaningful connections are often those which remain ‘unspoken’ and require little use for words. This is a unique and rare place, however, and communication remains as necessary to life as food and shelter.Like the Magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians, Mrs. Curren is a white South African awakening to her complicity to the apartheid system. She is also dying of cancer and alone, and her ambivalence towards her illness shapes her perception of the world and therefore, her narrative voice. The syntax is contradictory and often self-negating: “Death is the only truth left. Death is what I cannot bear to think…I am thinking of someone else, I am not thinking death, am not thinking the truth.”As Mrs. Curren writes, apartheid itself is breathing its last breath while maintaining its firm grip, but the fires of aggression and violence begin to kindle from the other side. Bheki, the teenage son of her housekeeper Florence, represents the future of the country’s black youth. Mrs. Curren, upset that Florence cannot control Bheki and his friends and their frequent waywardness, believes that Florence is neglecting her duties as a mother. Her housekeeper, on the other hand, remains silent and complies with their aggressive behavior. She recognizes their forthright actions as necessary and good for the future: “They are like iron, we are proud of them.”Terminally ill and with no one to talk to, she composes an epistle to a daughter in America who has moved to escape her own complicity in apartheid. But it is in Mrs. Curren’s relationship with Verceuil, whom she finds sleeping in a back alley, where she finds comfort and friendship. They are bound by a mutual sense of hopelessness, the need to endure, and their apparent impotence in a world that remains angry and destructive. His silent gestures and day-to-day survival are what lend a “real world” concreteness to her often abstract and philosophical meanderings: “Why do I write about him? Because he is and is not I. Because in the look he gives me I see myself in a way that can be written. Otherwise, what would this writing be but a kind of moaning, now high, now low? When I write about him, I write about myself…” Through him, she re-establishes life and survival as the focus of her every act and every word.Mrs. Curren’s struggle to live is thus defined by her efforts to express her complex love for her daughter, to make sense of her world, to speak the “truth” of how she feels and what she believes is right. But words have been sickened, or else silenced, by the events of a violent past and unrelenting cruelty; they have lost their meaning and their ability to be heard; actions, and not words, are now the language of this “age of iron”. When Bheki disappears, Mrs. Curren accompanies Florence to the township where she is met with hostility from its inhabitants. Though she appeals to the people of the township as a mother and as a human being, her words are ‘white’ and can no longer serve as a plea for compassion and understanding. Her words are the words of the ‘oppressor’: “This woman talks shit,’ said the man in the crowd. He looked around. ‘Shit,’” he said.What stands out most for me in the novel is this problem of communication: between mothers and daughters, the old and the young, the sick and the healthy, black South Africans and white South Africans. It is a familiar theme in Coetzee’s works. Apartheid has destroyed these relationships like a cancer from within. Questions remain about the future, and words are all one has to help achieve understanding and to shape attitudes and values. Ingeborg Bachmann, whose poem serves as a kind of epigraph to this review, wrote about this problem of words and their necessity to heal. She accounts for her own complicity in the horrors of Nazi Germany through her poetry, trying to restore trust through words and the use of fragmentary images. For Coetzee, I believe it is the same: the struggle to find the words is the struggle to live. We must keep looking for the words, they say, albeit in the refuse of a back alley or in the remains of a gray sand dune littered with ashes of homes burned to the ground. ( )
3 vote m.gilbert | Feb 12, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140275657, Paperback)

In Cape Town, South Africa, an old woman is dying of cancer. A classics professor, Mrs. Curren has been opposed to the lies and brutality of apartheid all her life, but has lived insulated from its true horrors. Now she is suddenly forced to come to terms with the iron-hearted rage that the system has wrought. In an extended letter addressed to her daughter, who has long since fled to America, Mrs. Curren recounts the strange events of her dying days. She witnesses the burning of a nearby black township and discovers the bullet-riddled body of her servant's son. A teenage black activist hiding in her house is killed by security forces. And through it all, her only companion, the only person to whom she can confess her mounting anger and despair, is a homeless man, an alcoholic, who one day appears on her doorstep.

Brilliantly crafted and resonant with metaphor, Age of Iron is "a superbly realized novel whose truths cut to the bone." (The New York Times Book Review)

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:41:39 -0400)

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As an elderly woman's health deteriorates, so does the condition of her country, South Africa.

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