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“Disgrace,” by J.M. Coetzee

11 Mar

“Disgrace,” by J.M. Coetzee (218p)

South African Nobel Prize winning author J.M. Coetzee won the Booker Prize for 1999’s Disgrace. It is a story about a South African literary scholar and professor who “disgraces” himself at his job and in society, and runs away to redeem himself in the country in a telling of modern life in Post-Apartheid South Africa.

(plot summary from Wikipedia)
David Lurie is a South African professor of English who loses everything: his reputation, his job, his peace of mind, his good looks, his dreams of artistic success, and finally even his ability to protect his own daughter. He is twice-divorced and dissatisfied with his job as a Communications professor, teaching one specialized class in Romantic literature at a technical university in Cape Town in post-apartheid South Africa. His “disgrace” comes when he seduces one of his students and he does nothing to protect himself from its consequences. Lurie was working on Lord Byron at the time of his disgrace, and “the irony is that he comes to grief from an escapade that Byron would have thought distinctly timid.” He is dismissed from his teaching position, after which he takes refuge on his daughter’s farm in the Eastern Cape. For a time, his daughter’s influence and natural rhythms of the farm promise to harmonise his discordant life. But the balance of power in the country is shifting. Shortly after becoming comfortable with rural life, he is forced to come to terms with the aftermath of an attack on the farm in which his daughter is raped and impregnated and he is violently assaulted.

In many ways, Disgrace is a bit of an unusual novel, at least for me anyway. I say unusual because J.M. Coetzee has a very distinct style in the way he writes. His style lends itself to short, sharp and precise sentences which never meanders and drones on and on like authors have a tendency to do. Disgrace is also told at a relentless pace and moves from event to event, act to act, rather quickly. It is quite a short novel for this reason. But the skill in which Coetzee tells the story of David Lurie and his “disgrace” never suffers from the telling at such a swift pace, and the reader gets a full understanding of the self-destruction this man puts himself through with his inability to make the right choices. Lurie’s systematic destruction of his own life and career is met with a continual indifference to his own plight, as if he were a man that simply didn’t care about himself or the consequences of his own actions against himself because of his need to fulfil his vices and desires of lust.

Lurie is quite a complicated character and interesting in many ways. For one thing, even though he is the protagonist of the novel and the central figure of all the events which occur within it, he is a completely unlikeable character. Rude, pompous, arrogant, narcissistic, condescending, and conniving are all words I would use to describe David Lurie. That is not to say he doesn’t care about just himself. As he moves on from Cape Town and flees from his disgrace, Lurie’s deep love and care for his only child, Lucy, clearly becomes evident. From this readers understand Lurie would do anything for Lucy and indeed, I was under the impression she is the only thing Lurie cares more about than himself. Lucy is just as complicated and altogether messed up as her father is and displays a number of similar characteristics to him, with the difference being Lurie is a wildly passionate man while Lucy displayed a coldness and an unwillingness to do anything than her lot in life.

Lurie and Lucy are the two most prominent characters of note, but the other characters in Disgrace are similarly unlikeable. If I had to meet them, I wouldn’t exactly be on great terms with them I think. All of this is told against the backdrop of post-apartheid South Africa, a country in which the social issues run so deep it is hard to imagine. Coetzee does not shy away from this and explores the difficulties in rural South Africa between once dominant whites and the poor black majority. It is a dangerous place to be and one in which there is a daily struggle for survival amidst poverty, corruption, theft and rape. The fact that South Africa is probably one of the worst countries in the world is never left ignored in Disgrace – Coetzee never lets readers forget just what a dangerous country it is outside the relative safeties of Cape Town and other such cities.

As I said at the beginning of this review, J.M. Coetzee is a Nobel Prize winning author and received the Booker Prize for Disgrace, so when I picked up Disgrace a few months ago I did so in the knowledge that it would probably be good. An author doesn’t win the Nobel Prize for Literature by producing same old, same old unimaginative garbage. Certainly Disgrace did not disappoint and is an excellent novel, one in which I found no difficulty in reading or enjoying the story. The characters are different, the setting is one in which provides an immensely interesting backdrop, and the story is ultimately one of redemption – who can’t understand and relate to Lurie in some way? We have all made mistakes in our lives before. For that reason readers should enjoy Disgrace and find it a compelling story, if not find its main characters to be a pair of tosspots.