I had never read anything by South African writer, J.M. Coetzee. Always thought I should. Never did.
But yesterday, sitting for a couple of hours at a volunteer job, I picked up a copy of his Age of Iron, and finished before the evening was over. A beautifully written book.
Published in 1990, it tells the story of a retired literature professor in Capetown (white), who learns she has an incurable cancer. Her husband is long dead; her only daughter living the United States, vowing not to return to South Africa until apartheid it dismantled.
The book is written in the first person, a long narrative written to her daughter far away. The narrator is eminently likeable, has led an exemplary life, it seems, a liberal academician caught in a brutal society.
Yet she never realized how brutal it was, until a series of adventures, with vagrants (white), her domestic (black) and her domestic’s children and their friends leads her into a South Africa she knew existed intellectually but had never seen first hand.
And now, her life was ebbing before there was change in her country. She never imagined it that way. And now it appears that the social system in the country might continue forever, because no one (white) really speaks out, no one (white) really understands what is going on.
She would speak out, in her dying days. But how? Is there a way to make a statement, to create an incident that would serve as a statement, without belittling oneself with no advantage to the cause.
Coetzee has written this simple, complex story with grace and beauty. No wonder he is considered such a world class writer, twice a Booker Prize winner, and the 2003 Nobel Prize winner.
From Wikipedia, “Rian Malan wrote that Coetzee is “a man of almost monkish self-discipline and dedication. He does not drink, smoke or eat meat. He cycles vast distances to keep fit and spends at least an hour at his writing-desk each morning, seven days a week. A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word.”
I guess that if you write this well, talking might be superfluous.