J.M. Coetzee’s 1999 Booker prize winning novel, Disgrace, is powerful; it weaves through life and its moral dilemmas especially when faced with disgrace.
Davis Lurie is a professor lecturing romantic poetry and communication skills at the Technical University of Cape town. He is twice divorced and lives alone. To solve the ‘problem’ of sex, he visits the same brothel on a weekly basis, meeting the same woman. One can say they have become friends, since he unburdens himself to her and buys her gifts on special days. When the rendezvous abruptly comes to an end, David feels lost. He gets involved with one of his students, Melanie Isaacs and his life takes an unexpected turn when the affair is exposed. Appearing before the university committee, he tells the judges that his liaison with the pretty and passive Melanie, transformed him, he says, “I was no longer a fifty year old divorcee at a loose end, I became a servant of Eros.” Although he admits he is guilty he doesn’t apologize- he genuinely believes his passion for Melanie was the real thing.
He resigns in disgrace and decides to visit his only daughter, Lucy, to forge a way forward. Lucy, a lesbian owns a small farm in rural South Africa, and lives alone. David is no country man, but within days he finds himself immersed in his daughter’s affairs and friends. He even volunteers to work in the local animal shelter, even though he’s never been keen on animals. What begins as peaceful transition for David suddenly takes an ugly turn when Lucy is gang raped by three men, and he himself physically attacked. His demands for justice get no response from the overstretched police- the perpetrators are not punished. His side remarks about the incident to Petrus, Lucy’s farm hand and neighbor produce only stony silences and lies. David believes Petrus knew it would happen- on the fateful day, he was away.
The author then narrates an intricate story of dealing with disgrace- by David and Lucy. David thinks the only solution is for Lucy to sell the land and start somewhere else but she decides to stay. She understands what David doesn’t- that in order to survive where she lives, she must tolerate the humiliation, surrender all she has and merely keep going. She tells him:
‘……I must learn to accept, to start at ground level. With nothing………. No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity………..like a dog.’ Many comparisons of human and animal existence are mentioned in Disgrace.
David goes back to Cape Town, all his former friends avoid him; his ex wife puts it bluntly: ‘you have lost your job, your name is mud, your friends avoid you, you hide out……………………..like a tortoise afraid to stick its neck out of the well…………’. He finally tries to change as he drafts out an opera on Byron, takes care of animals and helps Lucy as they all try for a new beginning in their relationship.
I was greatly impressed by this book. Coetzee uses direct narrative form of writing and it is interesting to see how different characters in the book react to disgrace. The story shows how disgrace takes on various forms in different societies, professions and various age groups.
You May Also Like to Read…
- Book Review: In the Heart of the Country (by J.M Coetzee)
- Book Review: Summer Time (by J.M. Coetzee)
- Author Profile: J. M. Coetzee