Study Guide

Age of Iron Violence

By J.M. Coetzee

Violence

As the second boy, the friend, neared him, Vercueil struck out and hit him on the neck with the flat of his hand. The boy drew in his breath with a hiss of surprise: even from the balcony I heard it. He struck back at Vercueil, who stumbled and nearly fell. (2.68)

Mrs. Curren isn't immune to outside violence anymore; it can literally happen in her own backyard.

Vercueil was on the ground; they were kicking him; Bheki took out the belt from his trousers and began to lash him. "Florence!" I shouted. "Stop them!" Vercueil put his hands over his face to protect himself. The dog made a leap at Bheki; Bheki knocked it backward and went on flailing Vercueil with his belt. (2.68)

Whoa – it seems like almost out of nowhere, a humdrum day at Mrs. Curren's house has turned into a scene of unabashed hatred and violence.

"They kick and beat a man because he drinks. They set people on fire and laugh while they burn to death. How will they treat their own children?" (2.68)

Mrs. Curren can't believe what she just saw in her own backyard – how could Bheki lash out so violently towards Vercueil? She worries about the implications this has for the future. If kids learn that unpremeditated violence is OK, they're going to set a terrible example for future generations. In fact, how will they even manage to be parents?

"I cannot send him home, said Florence. "If he goes Bheki will go with him. They are like this." She held up a hand, two fingers intertwined. "It is safer for them here. In Gugulethu there is trouble all the time, and then the police come in and shoot." (2.130).

Maybe Bheki and his friend learned to be spontaneously violent because it's something they live with every day – the police show up and shoot people.  Violence begets violence.

Then Florence was there, kneeling beside her son, speaking to him urgently, stroking his head. He began to reply: slow, mumbled words. Her hand paused as she listened. "They crashed into the back of this truck," I explained. "It's my truck," said the man in blue. "The police pushed them," I said. "It's appalling, quite appalling. It was those same policemen who were here yesterday, I am sure." (2.190)

Bheki's bike accident wasn't really an accident; it was an example of police brutality.

Ten years at most. A child of the times, at home in this landscape of violence. When I think back to my own childhood I remember only long sun-struck afternoons, the smell of dust under avenues of eucalyptus, the quiet rustle of water in roadside furrows, the lulling of doves. (3.64)

What's really hard for Mrs. Curren to fathom is how there are kids in her society who have only really known the kind of violence that she finds so bizarre and terrifying. She remembers childhood as something totally different – as a time of supreme innocence; that kind of childhood doesn't seem to exist anymore.

I got up. There was a fight of some kind going on to my left; all the people who a minute ago had been fleeing into the bush were just as suddenly pouring back. A woman screamed, high and loud. How could I get away from this terrible place? Where was the pond I had waded across, where was the path to the car? There were ponds everywhere, pools, lakes, sheets of water; there were paths everywhere, but where did they lead?

Distinctly I heard the pop of gunfire, one, two, three shots, not nearby, but not far away either. (3.94-95)

In this setting, violence exists everywhere. The place to which everyone ran in order to flee the violence around them turned out to be yet another terrible place. No matter where everyone runs, violence is an immediate reality.

The officer dropped his cigarette, ground it into the wet sand.

"This unit hasn't fired a shot in twenty-four hours," he said softly. "Let me suggest to you: don't get upset before you know what you are talking about. Those people in there are not the only ones who have died. The killings are going on all the time. Those are just the bodies they picked up from yesterday. The fighting has subsided for the time being, but as soon as the rain stops it will flare up again. I don't know how you got here—they should have closed the road—but this is a bad place, you shouldn't be here. We'll radio the police, they can escort you out." (3.189-190)

It's pretty striking how this officer is so nonchalant about the violence and death around him. It's also interesting how he excuses himself.

He got up, brushing the red band with his fingertips. A favor. In the age of chivalry men hacked other men to death with women's favors fluttering on their helmets. A waste of breath to preach prudence to this boy. The instinct for battle too strong in him, driving him on. (3.464)

Mrs. Curren portrays violence not just as something that comes out of actions, but also as something that one lives and breathes. Mrs. Curren can tell that the impulse to act violently is something that exists within John, not just in the world outside of him.

Nothing had changed except that a second windowpane was gone. The courtyard itself was empty; the policemen, half a dozen of them now, were crouching on the veranda, guns at the ready.

"Weg!" shouted one of them furiously. "Kry haar weg!"

The woman bundled me indoors. As she closed the door there was a curt explosion, a fusillade of shots, then a long stunned silence, then low talk and, from somewhere, the sound of Vercueil's dog yapping.

I tried to pull open the door, but the woman held me tight.

"If you have hurt him I will never forgive you," I said. (3.587-591)

This is probably the last thing Mrs. Curren ever expected to see in her own home. It all happens really quickly and emotionlessly.

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