J. M. Coetzee’s The Age of Iron (1990)
Thucydides wrote of people who made rules and followed them. Going by rule they killed entire classes of enemies without exception. Most of those who died felt, I am sure, that a terrible mistake was being made, that, whatever the rule was, it could not be meant for them. ‘I!—‘: that was their last word as their throats were cut. A word of protest: I, the exception.
Were they exceptions? The truth is, given time to speak, we would all claim to be exceptions. For each of us there is a case to be made. We all deserve the benefit of the doubt.
This is my fourth J. M. Coetzee novel. I am drawn to both the form and content of his writing.
With respect to form, Coetzee is a punchy writer. Sentences are often short and offer little description of the environment the characters find themselves in. There is little to no flowery language or meandering description that can serve as a brief respite from what is tormenting the characters. The rhythm from one sentence to the next is meant to sustain emotional feelings through repeated hits to the mind.
As for content, Coetzee examines social power, particularly as it is expressed in the violence and racism of twentieth-century South Africa. Much like in his other novels, the protagonist of Age of Iron is ineffective in such circumstances, despite having a burning desire to end the suffering. Mrs. Curren, a retired classics professor who is dying of cancer, hopes to shatter the rigid, iron-like habits of discrimination and hatred. Unfortunately nobody is willing to listen and her only real companion is a homeless transient named Vercueil, whose only cares are the bottle and getting out of the rain.