Age of Iron
by J.M. Coetzee
We're not trying to exaggerate here, but we have to say that Vercueil might just be one of the most interesting, confusing, and mysterious characters we've ever encountered. We could read Age of Iron ten times and still not have any better idea of what the heck his deal is, but it's definitely fun to try to figure it out.
So, who is this mysterious man? Well, let's start with the basic rundown: when we first meet him, we don't know his name. We just know him as the man whom Mrs. Curren finds camped out on her property on the very same day that she finds out that her cancer is definitely going to kill her – what a day. Even though Mrs. Curren tells him he can't stay there, there's something about him that makes her invite him inside her home the second time he shows up. He's always asking for money, and he also seems like a real boozehound. He eats this weird fried-bread-with-tuna-and-tomato-sauce concoction all the time. In spite of Vercueil's foibles, though, Mrs. Curren comes to depend on him to a greater and greater extent, opening up her heart to him, entrusting him with her letters, and letting him take care of her as she comes closer and closer to death.
No Talk, All Action
When we really start thinking about Vercueil, though, we realize that everything we know about him comes from the actions we actually see him perform. Some very basic questions about him go unanswered for the whole duration of the book – we start to wonder if it's possible that some things about him are left deliberately vague. Where's he from? Well, we know he went out to sea for a bit and saw Russia and China; he lives in Cape Town – but we don't know where he grew up. Any time Mrs. Curren asks him anything specific about himself, though, he sort of grunts in a noncommittal way. She's not sure if he's saying yes or no and doesn't even follow up.
Another question: how do you say his name? What sort of name is it? Well, Mrs. Curren doesn't even seem to know and she's the person giving us all our information – which is kind of weird, right? Check it out: "'His name is Mr. Vercueil,' I said. 'Vercueil, Verkuil, Verskuil. That's what he says. I've never come across such a name before'" (2.13). Is it his first name or his last name? Or does he do the Madonna thing – maybe he's just Vercueil?
Questions of Race
But there are two even bigger questions we have to ask about Vercueil. First of all, when dealing with a book about Apartheid, or any book that deals with racial issues, the race with which a particular character identifies has pretty big implications on his role in the plot. In Age of Iron, we're constantly hit over the head with references to race. Mrs. Curren is white and feels guilty about it. Florence is black and hates white people. The police are white and hate non-whites. Bheki and John are black and think that white people just don't get it. The doctor is white. Mrs. Curren's daughter is white (and hates herself for it). So…what about Vercueil?
We're just going to throw it out there – we think that it's a really deliberate choice on Coetzee's part not to mention Vercueil's race, and a whole lot of critics out there think the same thing. We get plenty of references to his appearance: he has fang-like teeth; his eyes look yellow sometimes; he's tall but thin; he has long, oily hair; let's also not forget that his feet gross out Mrs. Curren and the guy has tremendous body odor. If we're getting all of these different details, shouldn't we also learn Vercueil's race? If this were any other novel, we would say it didn't matter, but in one that talks so much about race, this omission seems like it was made on purpose.
Big question number two: now, don't think we're crazy, but isn't there something a little, well, otherworldly about Vercueil? It seems a bit uncanny that he just shows up the second that Mrs. Curren finds out she's going to die. The way he lurks around her property, watching TV through the window over her shoulder, and suddenly showing up when she needs him (think of when she falls asleep under the bridge, for instance) seems to tell us that he and she are connected on some cosmic level. She calls him her messenger in the sense that she expects him to deliver her letters to her daughter. But as the novel progresses, we start to get the sense that maybe he's also supposed to be her messenger from the afterlife.
The last moments of the novel alone are enough to make us think he's some sort of Angel of Death figure – he loses all of his trademark physical characteristics (where did that B.O. go?) and holds Mrs. Curren in a cold, hard embrace, and then poof! her narrative ends. Come on – that's just creepy. We're not saying that Vercueil is absolutely the Angel of Death, but it's certainly a possibility.
Whew. We could really write a whole book about Vercueil, but we'll restrain ourselves.Timeline