No matter how many of them I read, a novel about Apartheid South Africa is always a sobering experience. Age of Iron, a 1990 novel by Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee, is one of the most powerful works of its kind. Coetzee has written more brutal novels—Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace are not for the faint-hearted—but what gives Age of Iron its immediacy, at least for me, is that it is the one Coetzee book that deals most directly with children, and the Apartheid government’s relentless and often violent efforts to inculcate the notions of inferiority and subservience among the country’s black children. You don’t have to be a parent of a young child to feel heartbreak over the events that Coetzee so vividly depicts.
The novel is a long letter written by Mrs. Curren, a white, elderly Latin scholar dying of cancer, to her adult daughter, who moved to the U.S. years earlier to escape her home country’s brutal regime. At the opening of the story, Mrs. Curren discovers Vercueil, a homeless man whose race Coetzee never specifies, in the alley next to her house. Rather than demand that he leave her property, she invites Vercueil in and makes him a sandwich. Later, on her way out to go shopping, she collapses from the pain of her illness. Vercueil helps her back into the house. Thus begins a friendship so meaningful to Mrs. Curren that she asks him if he would mail her letter and other documents to her daughter after the cancer has overtaken her. She even fantasizes about sleeping with him.
But the fantasy quickly gives way to the most direct confrontation with Apartheid of Mrs. Curren’s life. Children in the nearby township of Guguletu have been burning down their schools. One of the children involved is 15-year-old Bheki, the oldest child of Mrs. Curren’s domestic. One afternoon, Mrs. Curren discovers Bheki and two other boys beating up Vercueil in the alley. After she stops the assault, Mrs. Curren is stunned when her domestic expresses pride in Bheki’s actions. If the children of South Africa are cruel, she says, it is because the white man has made them that way. “These are good children,” she says. “They are like iron. We are proud of them.”
This attack is only the beginning of Mrs. Curren’s belated first encounters with the horrors of Apartheid, horrors from which her privileged upbringing had heretofore shielded her. The narrative takes her to hospitals where black African children are subjected to neglectful treatment, and to townships destroyed by security forces. As Mrs. Curren’s exposure to Apartheid in her dying days awakens her to a world she had known of and condemned but never seen, her letter to her daughter turns into a plea to get her to come back. She is more than just afraid of dying alone. She needs to know that the children of South Africa are still capable of love. “I cannot live without a child,” Mrs. Curren writes. “I cannot die without a child.”
In its understated way, Age of Iron may be Coetzee’s most passionate plea against his country’s 46-year reign of white supremacy. His story dramatizes the importance of courage in the face of injustice, even among people who seem at best indirectly affected by events. To ignore inequality imperils us all, Coetzee says, none more so than children. That South Africa has made strides since the book’s publication to correct its biases is cause for cautious optimism. One wonders what Mrs. Curren would have thought of the country her homeland has become since the end of Apartheid, and whether the surviving children of Age of Iron went on to have children of their own, and whether these offspring have entered a softer age than the one endured by their forebears.
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