Review of J.M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace”
During the winter, while I was confined to a small apartment in the company of some books, I made the mistake of reading a rather disturbing and depressing book:is “Disgrace” by J.M. Coetzee, a South African writer, Nobel laureate and Booker Prize winner who, as I later learned, is known for a quite impressive oeuvre of depressing books. This article contains spoilers.
“Disgrace” is a short novel set in the post-apartheid South Africa. It relays the tragedy of 52-year-old David Lurie, Professor of Communications (once English) at Cape Town Technical University, who is divorced and finds sexual fulfillment in prostitutes. While teaching Romantic poetry and thinking about composing an opera, Lurie seduces one of his students. The affair is discovered, and Lurie is forced to resign. Considering himself disgraced, Lurie retreats into rural life, and lives with his daughter, Lucy, on a former communal farm. Unannounced, three men intrude upon the farm. They rape Lucy and attempt to kill Lurie by setting him on fire. Profoundly distressed, Lucy becomes reticent, refuses to report the case and rationalizes the rape as rightful racial retribution. Distraught, Lurie leaves. He finds his house robbed, and in the midst of the wreckage attempts to compose his opera, but the music goes nowhere. Lurie returns to Lucy and finds her pregnant. She refuses to abort the child. Desperate, Lurie resorts to working in a local animal clinic where he euthanizes dogs.
Coetzee’s “Disgrace” captures and conveys the complicated and convoluted truth of post-apartheid South Africa. Apartheid, Afrikaans for “apartness,” was a system of legally sanctioned racial segragation implemented in 1948 in South Africa, which separated the country’s minority white upperclass and majority Black underclass. It severely damaged the latter, significantly depriving them of their economic prospects and political rights. Violence and unrest plagued South Africa for several decades. However, when apartheid was abolished in the 1990s during a global wave of democratization, South Africa faced a blinding array of new social problems. As one group gained their long-overdue rights, another group lost their long-enjoyed privileges. In both groups, resentment stirred, as one desired retribution and retaliation, and another felt the discontents of disenfranchisement. Coetzee’s “Disgrace,” published in 1999, stems from and is situated in such a social context, its pages brimming with the heat of history.
While David Lurie may seem like the archetypal white-male oppressor, which today’s intellectual trend delights in deconstructing, he is more than that. Admittedly, Lurie is a villain. He abuses his position by seducing his student and when exposed, is stubbornly unrepentant. In such a sense, he is not only a typical oppressor but also embodies pre-apartheid South Africa in all its horror. However, Lurie is also a victim. He is a victim because he is not only punished for his crime but also persecuted for his existence. When Lurie leaves the city and exposes himself to wild rural South Africa, he does not stand a chance and is promptly devoured by viciously violent retributive and retaliatory forces. Rightfully punished, he loses his position and reputation. Wrongfully persecuted, he loses literally everything, from his daughter and his health to his dignity as a person and his hope in his life and the world. We might well not sympathize with him, but his situation is sympathetic in a full sense of the word. In Lurie, the boundary between villain and victim is broken as the previous villain becomes the present victim. From Lurie’s tragedy, a truth beyond either villain or victim identities emerges.
To write about a complex subject requires a capable style. Coetzee, who has made a career of confronting the haunting complexity of human existence with his work, had certainly chosen a difficult and explosive subject in “Disgrace.” In “Disgrace,” Coetzee’s style is sparing yet striking, as his sentences, condensed and compressed, observe a power and precision unfamiliar to contemporary Anglophone literature. Two hundred and fifteen pages in paperback, “Disgrace” is short, and its shortness is telling of its succinctness, which differs from the excessivity and exuberance of the maximalist trend which dominates contemporary English writing, as is evident in the prose of Salman Rushie and Zadie Smith. In comparison to his colleagues, Coetzee’s prose is controlled and disciplined, tempered and restrained, observing a Flaubertian perfection in diction, though not lacking in momentary bursts of poetic energy. It is safe to say that his style has not failed his subject. Instead, it accentuates and enhances the inherent intensity of its subject matter.
Coetzee’s “Disgrace” is a masterpiece. It offers not only aesthetic pleasure and artistic perfection, but also powerful political analysis and pertinent social commentary. A student of Dostoyevsky and Kafka, Coetzee combines the former’s deep psychological drama and the latter’s attentively polished absurdities. As a work of art, “Disgrace” spectacularly shatters categories of convenience: good and evil, oppressor and oppressed, villain and victim, we and the others. In Coetzee’s “Disgrace,” these dichotomies that we depend on to comprehend or distort reality disintegrate, from the ruins and rubbles of which a shared suffering transcending tribalism arises — the essence of our human condition.