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South African Novel Is A Tragic Epic of Heart

AGE OF IRON, By J. M. Coetzee. Random House, 198 pp. $18.95 `AGE OF IRON'' is short, not even 200 pages, but it has the scope of a tragic epic.

J. M. Coetzee's people settled in South Africa centuries ago, Afrikaner farmers. He studied linguistics in the United States. He won the Booker Prize for a previous novel, ``The Life & Times of Michael K.'' His has always been an experimental, indirect (even allegorical) way of addressing the tragedy of South Africa. Some readers and critics have doubted his liberalism.

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So ``Age of Iron'' comes as a shock. No one can doubt where Coetzee stands anymore. The protagonist, Mrs. Curran, is a devoutly liberal white woman whose patriotism is a form of love-hate. There are scenes in which the beauties of the country overwhelm her and the reader. She says, ``A sense of urgency is what keeps deserting me. Sitting here among all this beauty, or even sitting at home among my own things, it seems hardly possible to believe there is a zone of killing and degradation all around me. It seems like a bad dream.'' We watch with sympathy as Mrs. Curran descends the stairway into despair over her country's future.

She faces the worst as she sees it. ``I, a white,'' she says.``When I think of the whites, what do I see? I see a herd of sheep (not a flock: a herd) milling around on a dusty plain under the baking sun. I hear a drumming of hooves, a confusion of sound that resolves itself, when the ear grows attuned, into the same bleating call in a thousand different inflections: `I!' `I!' `I!''' Armed with her sense of identity and hope, she argues against blacks who arm black youths with guns. Then she herself becomes hopeless.

To read this novel is to learn to see things from Mrs. Curran's point of view. The novel is structured to give the reader little wiggle room. It takes the form of a letter written by Mrs. Curran, who used to be a humanities teacher, to her daughter, who lives in the States and phones her but who refuses to come back until the blacks are free.

In the crisis of the novel, an outbreak of violence in the townships, Mrs. Curran, who went there to help find a black boy, writes: ``I tell you this story not so that you will feel for me but so that you will learn how things are. ... I am the only one. I am the one writing: I, I. So I ask you: attend to the writing, not to me.''

The echo of the earlier passage is precise and excruciating for the reader who wants to understand, even love Mrs. Curran. She is dying of cancer, but she doesn't allow herself to wallow. ``When an old person begins to plead for love everything turns squalid. Like a parent trying to creep into bed with a child: unnatural.''

Just as we get comfortable with comparing ourselves, as readers, to Mrs. Curran's daughter, a third point of view takes over. Mrs. Curran's only friend is Mr. Vercueil, a black homeless man whose looks and smell initially horrify her. Her loneliness and deprivation are pierced by one who is beyond loneliness and deprivation. She asks him to mail her letter to her daughter after she dies. Their conversations (often wordless on his part) belong to the world's great dramatic literature. As the novel progresses, she addresses herself to him, not to her daughter.

Eventually, in her despair, Mrs. Curran ends up in the street, homeless and filthy, like Mr. Vercueil. ``I was just part of the urban shadowland,'' she says. Of course it's just an episode, but it doesn't leave her where it found her. She becomes less and less sure her ways of sweetness and light are sufficient unto the evil of the day.

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Finally, she identifies with those who act as if they are beyond hope. She is defiant.

``Age of Iron'' is a great book. Coetzee's style has a lunar brilliance, a phosphorescence that reveals the truth behind the shadows. ``Age of Iron'' is at once classic and modern, Greek tragedy and Samuel Beckett. And it has a grace all its own.

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