BOOK REVIEW : A Mirror Held to the Ugly Face of Apartheid : AGE OF IRON by J.M. Coetzee Random House $18.95, 196 pages

TIMES BOOK CRITIC

If death casts us out from life, dying pretty much casts us out from society--at least the kind of society we have evolved. Ours does not stress living--which in its natural way includes death--so much as acquiring: money, power, health, allure, love, fulfillment. Dying, which is relinquishing, has no real place there.

J. M. Coetzee chooses a dying woman to speak his searing monologue about South Africa, whose apartheid has made outcasts of its majority. Mrs. Curren is a professor of classics. She is white, privileged and imperious, but she also has the gift of lucidity. When her doctor reports that she has incurable cancer, her gift goes to work. It tells her she is black.

" 'We will tackle this together,' the doctor had said. But already behind the comradely front, I could see he was withdrawing. Sauve qui Peut ."

That is the start, but not the conclusion, of Mrs. Curren's journey. Told as a letter to her daughter in America, it is a journey of conversion, a Stations of the Cross in which the old woman painfully comes to learn how truly an outcast she was before she was cast out; how disfigured she was before she was black.

Any modern writer who uses a fictional monologue to speak of the human condition is apt to stand in the shadow of Albert Camus. Coetzee, one of the great writers of our time, stands in kinship but in his own light. The voice in "Age of Iron" is taut, ironic, grieving and, finally, astonishing. It vividly conjures the speaker--a cantankerous and reluctant heroine, a divine fool in the stoic tradition of Marcus Aurelius--but it goes beyond. She is a glass through whose peculiar magnification we discover the world.

Coming home from the doctor, Mrs. Curren discovers a ragged, filthy bum sheltering in her alley. She orders him out; without a word, he leaves. It is no remission; he is back, almost immediately. And Mrs. Curren's stringency gives way, step by step.

He will be tolerated but must build no fires and make no mess. He will be given a sandwich and coffee. He will be taken for rides in her car; ostensibly because it tends to stall and she needs someone to push it.

The bum, named Vercueil, becomes her distant, laconic, unpredictable companion. She insists he work in her garden in exchange for the money she gives him. Why? he wonders. So as to deserve it, she replies. "Who deserves anything?" he asks.

He comes and goes; he responds to her sometimes, and sometimes rebuffs her. At one point, he outrages her by bringing a street-woman home with him. She kicks her out; he leaves as well, and later returns.

If Vercueil is an enigmatic challenge, a more direct one comes from Bheki, the teen-age son of her servant, Florence, and from a friend he brings to stay. They are black activists, and she accepts them with uneasy sympathy. What she can't accept is their harshness and intolerance. They snub her and beat Vercueil, whose drunken slothfulness they regard as a disgrace. "They are not afraid to die," Florence says proudly, defending their hardness.

"Their hearts are turning to stone before our eyes," Mrs. Curren rejoins, "and what do you say? This is not my child, this is the white man's child, this is the monster made by the white man." And she reflects: "Children of iron, I thought . . . the age of iron . . . how long, how long before the softer ages return in their cycle, the age of clay, the age of earth?"

At this stage, she is still the liberal intellectual whose heart is in the right place, but not yet broken. Hers will be. When Bheki disappears, Mrs. Curren drives with Florence to the township to find him. They come upon him lying dead with dust in his teeth. Distraught, she confronts the army commander, who politely denies responsibility.

Muddy, scared, crippled with pain, she sees in the officer's eyes how she must look: a foolish, clumsy old woman, half outcast already. Later, the police break into her house and kill Bheki's friend. She flees and takes refuge in a field. Out-cast altogether.

Vercueil finds her and carries her gently home, but she is as homeless as he. Finally, dying, she will bring him into her bed to hold her. "One must love what is nearest, one must love what is to hand, as a dog loves," she says. He is closer to her than her daughter--whose dislike of apartheid keeps her in America--or her grandchildren.

So, in retrospect, are the two dead boys. "How ugly we are becoming," the old woman had reflected, watching the televised righteousness in the faces of the country's leaders. "How ugly we are becoming from being unable to think well of ourselves."

The dead boys were unlovable in their intolerance, she reflects, but "I do not want to die in the state of ugliness. I must love the unlovable. . . ."

White South Africa faces black anger, violence and revenge, Coetzee is saying. Its future must mean loving the unlovable to redeem all that has happened, to redeem itself from its own ugliness.

And at the end, the message widens to suggest an entire Western world that ignores the oppressed at home and abroad. To her daughter, Mrs. Curren writes in farewell:

"I wish your children life. But the wings you have tied on them will not guarantee them life. Life is about dirt beneath the toes. Life is dust between the teeth. Life is biting the dust."

Next: Elaine Kendall reviews "Tango" by Alan Judd (Summit Books).

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