AGE OF IRON

By J.M. Coetzee

Random House. 198 pp. $18.95

THERE ARE no rough edges to J.M. Coetzee's fiction. This is true of all this South African writer's work, from the intricate literary fable Foe to Life & Times of Michael K, that extraordinary homage to human dignity.

Age of Iron takes the form of a letter to a daughter in the United States from Mrs. Curren, a retired classics professor dying of cancer in South Africa. The figure of the beloved daughter who is safe and well, who has escaped, is crucial to the mother who stayed behind, but the letter is just a convenient device for Coetzee: This is not really an epistolary novel except in the crucial sense that its words are written by Mrs. Curren herself.

In Life and Times of Michael K -- for which he won Britain's Booker Prize -- Coetzee devised a spare, rapid manner. This book is far denser in its texture. Mrs. Curren has the mannerisms of an old-fashioned academic, someone trained to weigh her thoughts, to modify and qualify. If she tends to be pompous that is because she values precise expression, and sometimes her prose seems top-heavy, stilted. At such moments the writing itself underlines Mrs. Curren's inability to make a difference in her own country. Part of what Mrs. Curren discovers in Age of Iron is that the courteous exercise of reason she lives by has become a luxury in South Africa.

The other characters who figure in the book -- Mr. Vercueil, a homeless alcoholic; Florence, Mrs. Curren's "domestic"; Mr. Thabane, a black activist -- all regard her, for different reasons, as an irrelevent spectator. Age of Iron depicts the futility an intelligent, liberal, white South African experiences when she witnesses firsthand the terrifying consequences of apartheid: the burning of a township, the death of two boys at the hands of the state. As her sickness overwhelms her, she is increasingly unable to stave off the consequences of inhabiting a world she has always known is evil but from which she has been sheltered. The momentum of the novel is sustained by this metaphoric relation between the progress of Mrs. Curren's illness -- a sinister, invisible growth -- and her deepening awareness of South Africa's terminal malaise.

Mrs. Curren is a character of stature. Her eloquent hatred of injustice, her dismay at the retreat of "decent" behavior, her fierce apprehension of her imminent death, dominate the book and it sometimes looks as though she is to become a kind of symbol for the sick soul of South Africa, an expression of the ruin of the country itself. She doesn't quite, though there is something schematic in the way Age of Iron dramatizes the agony of a nation. This feeling of a neat structure, of Mrs. Curren being a cipher, vanishes at the stark conclusion, where she confronts her own death. Age of Iron is a grim read, and its achievement is to make that grimness actual. There is no solution, no false dawn, only the ache of a dying body.

Mr. Vercueil, the derelict and drunkard whom Mrs Curren adopts -- or does he adopt her? -- is the essential, banal foil to her despair. As poor Tom does for Lear on the heath, Vercueil gives her the image she needs of her degradation, her own "looped and windowed raggedness." He helps her to fall. The final scenes between the two of them bring to mind those words of Yeats's wise old hag Crazy Jane: "Love has pitched his mansion in/ the place of excrement./ For nothing can be sole or whole/ that has not been rent." Vercueil reiterates the lesson of Michael K and teaches it to Mrs Curren: We are all of us outsiders, if only we have the moral courage to admit it.

Age of Iron, like Coetzee's other books, leaves an indelible image of the South Africa it is set in -- but it is not simply a novel about politics or nationality. The detail with which Coetzee inscribes Mrs. Curren's inner life makes this an absorbing book, a powerful account of an old woman's descent into death. Coetzee knows how to write action when he wants to -- for instance in the scene that describes the death of Bheki, Florence's son -- but what stays with the reader is the narrator's imaginative largesse, her sensuous clarity of mind. Both are evident in her vision of Mr Vercueil:

"We share a bed, folded one upon the other like a page folded in two, like two wings folded . . . His toe-nails, when he takes off his shoes, are yellow, almost brown like horn . . . A dry creature, a creature of air, like those locust fairies in Shakespeare with their whipstock of cricket's bone, lash of spider film. Huge swarms of them borne out to sea on the wind, out of sight of land, tiring, settling one upon another, resolving to drown the Atlantic by their numbers. Swallowed, all of them, to the last. Brittle wings on the sea floor sighing like a forest of leaves . . ."

Michael Heyward is coeditor of the Australian literary magazine Scripsi.