Monday, August 13, 2012

the last book I read

Age Of Iron by JM Coetzee.

Mrs. Curren is a retired classics professor living in Cape Town at the tail-end of the 1980s. Not only is the country locked in what turned out to be the vicious death-throes of the apartheid regime (although this wasn't apparent at the time), but on a more personal level has she just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

She starts to compose a letter to her daughter, long since escaped to America, in the anticipation that this will be the last contact they will have. As if to give her something other than dying of cancer to write about, things immediately start to kick off - a homeless man, Mr. Vercueil, takes up residence in her back garden, and eventually they strike up a grudging friendship and he moves into the house.

Meanwhile her housekeeper Florence's son Bheki has been in some low-level trouble with the law, and the police's callous lack of interest in his fate after a minor traffic incident puts him in hospital motivates Mrs. Curren to some uncharacteristic political activism. Following a mysterious phone call in the middle of the night, she drives out to a nearby black township and witnesses government troops burning it. Later the same night she sees Bheki's bullet-riddled corpse on the floor of a nearby house, and is rudely brought to the realisation that the black community's anger is not solely directed at those whites who are active agents of the oppressive apartheid regime, but also at those who acquiesce in the same oppression by living in the system it maintains, even if they salve their own consciences while doing so with a bit of woolly liberal hand-wringing at the awfulness of it all.

So she decides to take action - after all, what has she got to lose? She considers something spectacular like soaking herself in petrol and driving her car up to some government building, but that's all a bit...spectacular, not to mention painful. Some of the decision-making is taken out of her hands when one of Bheki's friends turns up at her house, closely pursued by the police, and there is a stand-off which ends predictably messily. Eventually she realises that messily is probably how her life is going to end as well, rather than on some neatly climactic note.

You'll remember I've dabbled with Coetzee before, in the form of Slow Man, fully five-and-a-bit years ago. That was quite self-referential and playful, albeit in Coetzee's own slightly po-faced way; this is a different beast altogether, much more like Disgrace in its ruthless dismantling of white liberal sensibilities and assumptions. That said, there is just the possibility, particularly on reading the last couple of pages, of reading the character of Vercueil as not just some random tramp but as some sort of angel of death ushering Mrs. Curren into the netherworld. That aside (and it could be just me) this is pretty stark and uncompromising stuff, a contrast to the heavily allusive and tangential approach to pretty much the same subject taken in Memory Of Snow And Of Dust, but none the worse for that, just the opposite in fact.

Here's a rare video of the famously reclusive Coetzee speaking in public, while introducing David Malouf (as also previously featured in this list) at a literary festival in Adelaide.

No comments: