Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee (4.5/5)

First published: 1999
Page count: 219

The back says: After years teaching Romantic poetry at the Technical University of Cape Town, David Lurie, middle-aged and twice divorced, has an impulsive affair with a student. The affair sours, he is denounced and summoned before a committee of inquiry. Willing to admit his guilt, but refusing to yield to pressure to repent publicly, he resigns and retreats to his daughter Lucy's isolated smallholding. For a time, his daughter's influence and the natural rhythms of the farm promise to harmonise his discordant life. But the balance of power in the country is shifting. He and Lucy become victims of a savage and disturbing attack which brings into relief all the faultlines in their relationship.
I say: The first parts of this novel that deals with David having an affair, refusing to repent and moving to his daughter was interesting enough; but nothing special. It was intriguing to follow his reasoning behind not wanting to publicly atone, and I found myself agreeing with his principles – although not all of his actions that lead up to the point of being fired.

He had his pride – and not much else – so it’s understandable that he’d cling to that.
Then he moves to his daughter Lucy’s farm where she runs a boarding-house for dogs and sells her goods at a local market. Lucy has recently sold some of her property to her former farmhand Petrus, who is now trying to make a living for himself off his land. Just as David is becoming accustomed to his new life, they are robbed and his daughter is raped by three black men, which leads to consequences I cannot really discuss without it being a major spoiler, but I have to say that I never saw the conclusion coming and it sent chills down my spine.

It was extremely powerful and poignant and will always stay with me.
I have to point out that this novel is set in South Africa, which means that racial relations are what they are; especially with David and Lucy being white and their attackers black. If one wants to, and many have, one can turn this into a commentary on race and racial relations in South Africa – in fact, Coetzee has been called a racist for this novel. However, I am not going to touch that with a ten foot pole keyboard because I’d have to write an entire dissertation and I simply cannot be arsed. To me, this hits deeper at a female level than at a race level because of the consequences of Lucy’s rape and the choices she makes. It was hard for me not to put myself in her shoes and wonder what I would have done, bearing in mind that she was a single female running a farm on her own prior to her father’s arrival (she’d previously had a roommate who had left). Yes, I am aware that the fact that she was a single white female in post-apartheid South Africa is a huge part of the story, and that is part of what makes it interesting. However, that wasn’t the only thing the novel was about.

I didn’t instantaneously read David’s reaction as that of a white man being violated by black men, but more of a man being violated by other men. There are deeper layers of racial tension that emerge as the story progresses, but I can’t discuss them without it being a spoiler, so I won’t.
There are a lot of philosophical questions presented in this novel, and I like the way Coetzee weaves them into the dialogue without much pretence. They discuss human versus animal nature and the consequences of having their instincts repressed; whether or not we should say conform to society’s expectations; and how much we are willing to sacrifice to save our dreams.

There is also the question of disgrace – of course – not only David’s after his relationship with a student, but also Lucy’s after the attack. Who defines disgrace and how much does it alter our lives?
This gets a 4.5/5 because of the difficulty I had believing David’s conduct with his student – not all of it rang true to me.

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