Age of Iron: there is birth in death

J. M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron tactfully renders philosophical contemplation about life and death, personal struggles of beliefs, relationships and pain, and sociopolitical issues of South Africa under Apartheid in a beautiful, tragic, literary tale. It is a confession, an elegy of a generation, and a road to self-discovery.

Her poetic style speaks to me on a personal level, and stirs resonation within me. As a Latin professor and a woman, she never forgets to play with words in every few pages or so, anagrams, synonyms and associations, as if it was a mind game to distract her from all the physical and emotional pain. Coetzee has the power to transform readers’ perspective at every turn of the page: one moment you may feel like Mrs. Curren’s daughter, heart wrenching with regret and love for her mother in between the lines; the next minute you embody Mrs. Curren herself, trailing through her emotional odyssey towards an imminent, agonising, undignified death, from denial and resistance to resignation. Most of the time I felt like an outsider (disinterestedness in aesthetic appreciation!) , touched by her narration — sometimes to the brink of tears — but what can we do aside from watching her drown slowly in every aspect? As her physical state plummeted her spiritual state ascended — her mission to love, educate and rescue stayed with her to her deathbed.

She did not require help. In fact, it was the people of ignorance, innocence and indifference under the regime that were in desperate need of help. Children as young as ten, like John and Bheki, left school as a form of passive-aggressive protest, were scourged, hunted down and slaughtered by the police like headline criminals, when they were only innocent young men poisoned by the lack of parenting and kidnapped by the idea of “comradeship”. Mrs. Florence, servant of Mrs. Curren and mother of two, never cared to listen, and even took pride in how her son fought fearlessly for a cause higher than himself, in her words, “like iron”. Mr. Vercueil, the only person that showed some trace of tenderness at heart, was a rugged tramp who randomly showed up at Mrs. Curren’s door when she was struck by the sentence of cancer, a man who had yet to learn the rudimentary ways of love.

A tragedy? Perhaps, but less dim than Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human. While Dazai was completely hopeless about life, Mrs. Curren came to an almost noble realisation that death was a continuum of birth, and treasured the remnants of love and hope in her last days, however crude it might have been. I was particularly struck by Mrs. Curren’s phone call with Mr. Thabane, how they “agreed to differ” about comradeship. To Thabane’s generation, comradeship was the invincible bond that achieved strength in their political aspirations; to Curren’s generation, comradeship was a hollow promise, an ideological scam that disguised the hideous nature of humanity. This ideological rift revealed the true tragedy: a lack of inheritance of South African values from one generation to the next.

This is a novel I will definitely revisit. My understanding and aesthetic response from it will change with time, and I’d like to witness that change in action. This puts the joy in reading: it is a discovery of self, perspectives, and a world one cannot experience firsthand.

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