Sunday, January 15, 2012

Notes on DISGRACE by J. M. Coetzee

J. M. Coetzee is the South African writer who won the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature,
DISGRACE is a piece of literary writing without pretensions of being literary. Coetzee is so commanding a writer that it just is literary. The story flows easily, the writing is relatively simple and very engaging. I was drawn into the world of the protagonist David Lurie, a 52-year-old twice-divorced, college professor in Cape Town, South Africa.
Sex is the center of his life; with prostitutes, with students, with hungry women. An affair he pressed on a 19 or 20 year student plunges him into disgrace in the minds of everyone but himself. He is so extraordinarily self-centered and arrogant he isn’t aware of the impropriety of what he did with the student.
His arrogance prevents him humbling himself to save his job and his pension. He didn’t like his job anyhow. He had no respect for his students, and a strong distaste for his teaching. His dream is to write an opera about Bryon and one of his many mistresses, Teresa, a young Italian woman, only 19, recently married, whom Byron has dumped. Teresa, however, longs for Byron for the remainder of her life. Their affair was a transforming experience for her.
In the aftermath of being forced from his teaching post, Lurie goes into the backcountry of South Africa, where his daughter, Lucy, a lesbian whose lover has abandoned her, is running a small farm with the help of Petrus, a hired black African. Lucy doesn’t respect her father, who like so many, if not almost all, parents still wants to run his daughter’s life, assuming that he knows what is best for her no matter how much she resists.
On a day the black African, Petrus, isn’t around, two black men and a youth appear at Lucy’s farm. Lurie, who is suspicious of the three from the outset, is shoved into a bathroom and locked in with little resistance on his part. Dealing with predators, Lurie acts as though talking to them will make them go away. His daughter is raped and impregnated; the three pour mineral oil on Lurie and set him afire, laughing at him. They steal his car and whatever they find valuable at the farm.
Lurie’s burns are painful and embarrassing, but not devastatingly serious. He comes across as a wimp at best and a coward at worst, a man so civilized that he has lost the capability of fighting in the face of superior odds no matter what the outcome. Later in the book, he comes across the youth involved in the attack on Lucy and bats him around—an easier task than fighting two strong, determined, violent men.
It turns out that the boy is a relative of Petrus’ and Petrus has designs on Lucy’s farm. Petrus owns the land next door. Petrus is used to illustrate the shift in power in South Africa in that he decides he will no longer farm for Lucy and that if she wants to fall under his protection she has to become his third wife or concubine—not that he really wants her sexually, but because he wants to own the land and dominate his little world.
Lucy is willing to go along with that arrangement if Petrus will guarantee she can keep her house. She is just as empty as her father, but in a different way.
The two grown predators were more interested in demeaning the once dominate whites, Lurie and Lucy, than in robbing them. They use rape to illustrate the shift in power in post-apartheid South Africa. Perhaps there is play on the issue of rape domination since Lurie used his dominant role as a professor to impose himself sexually on a young woman, which is a subtle form of rape/domination. The earthy Africans used the old fashioned approach to physically forcing themselves on the white woman, Lucy, in their exercise of domination/rape.
There is an interesting subplot of the fascination and lure of creativity with Lurie locked into his opera, living in his mind. But the emptiness and self-centeredness and selfishness of the professor is driven home at the end of the book when he allows a crippled stray dog, who has come to love him and depend on him, to be euthanized instead of saving him. Perhaps it also shows how little Lurie values life, his own and other creatures. At no point did the book become a drag. Coetzee, indeed, is a great writer, a great creator of characters, a great grasper of the turmoil in the South African society in which he once lived.

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1 comment:

Craig said...

A well-written review. But the worker on Lucy's farm is Petrus, not Petus.