Published 2008 by Vintage (first published 1999)
As someone who has grown up and continues to live in South Africa, I found ‘Disgrace’ to be a completely apt portrayal of the country and the spirit of insecurity lived by everyone in the nation, with a white perspective in particular.
How do I even begin to write this review in a way anyone could understand? My personal reaction mingles with the carefully created plots and themes. A country that has moved beyond the atrocities of apartheid, has moved out of the international community’s gaze to live its freedom.
David Lurie is a member of the generation that will live through both South Africas. As he ages, through the changing universities, where his love of classical poetry no longer finds the same level of expression through the courses he runs, he has an affair with a prostitute and, later, with one of his students. Races mingle – an example of how we have moved forward; this previously prohibited act, but still forbidden – for her age, the ‘abuse’ of his position. The affair ends with a borderline rape, a commission of inquiry in which he will admit guilt, but will not apologise; is too old to submit to counselling or a process of change.
In his disgrace, he goes to stay with his lesbian daughter on her farm in the Eastern Cape and we get to see his adjustment to a different kind of life. Until they are brutally attacked.
The build-up to this is written in such a way that it creates the tangible fear experienced by all of South Africa’s occupants, as South Africa is one of the crime capitals of the world. An introduction to this explores men acting on sexual impulses – creating irony as the protagonist explores his grief in the wake of his daughter’s sexual assault and her reaction thereafter.
It marks a change in who he is – an acquiescence to ageing, mortality, change. He has the desire to fight and blame in what would be an antiquated way – something his daughter will not allow, although she was the victim of a crime committed in revenge, in hatred for who she was and what she represented. It threw the curtain between their generations, to paraphrase the book.
The crime also marks an abandonment for Lurie – of hope, justice, himself, and his dreams.
JM Coetzee has written a brave novel – one that unearths the status quo in post-apartheid South Africa, disturbs, terrifies, disheartens. It is real (I hope this is so for international readers too). It is written in a way that could be expected from a Nobel laureate. It is haunting, a piece of history, a masterpiece.
[Post-script: The above review was something of a knee jerk reaction to reading ‘Disgrace.’ It has, however, had a very lasting effect. It is representative of so many current themes in South Africa – white identity, fear, guilt; gender roles, sexual crime and abuse, crime and our anticipation, fear, and means of coping with it. All of this is examined in a book that also explores getting older, desire, evil, and how context can change us and freeze us in terms of who we are in a home that is changing – mostly for the best, but one that is not without its victims.
‘Disgrace’ has altered me in that it has changed the way I look at South Africa, its news reports, and people years after attaining freedom. It is something of a dystopian outlook, but one that can celebrate the country’s achievements and simultaneously mourn its shortcomings. It is a time of limbo in a country that has overcome atrocities and has yet to reach its pinnacle.
Watching the film complemented the book quite well, although it had some disturbing, graphic scenes that will be hard to forget. I think that is the nature of ‘Disgrace’ – the story will linger on and make you think on themes it is sometimes more comfortable to forget but, perhaps, that is the sign of a great novel – one that affects consciousness to the core and moves you to a new vantage point from which to assess the world.]