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'Disgrace' by J.M. Coetzee
‘Disgrace’ Booker Prize winners deliver rewarding novels
Sunday, November 07, 1999
By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor
Coetzee has no need to invent a dangerous world. He lives in one -- South Africa.
Life after apartheid has already captured the attention of Nadine Gordimer, another South African writer. Now it is Coetzee’s turn, and it’s a brilliant one.
Disgrace is where we soon find David Lurie, a 52-year-old white English professor at a Capetown university. He’s seduced a 20-year-old student and fudged her academic record to cover it up.
In an echo of South Africa’s official investigation of apartheid crimes, he’s brought before a panel of inquiry at college.
Proud of his success with women, Lurie confesses to his affair with an arrogance and lack of remorse that seals his fate. He’s kicked out.
He does have a place to turn, the rural home of his daughter Lucy, who supports herself by truck farming and kenneling dogs.
She shares the land with Petrus, a black man eager to take advantage of the new economic freedom in his country, not only on his property, but Lucy’s as well.
“Against this new Petrus, what chance does Lucy stand? Petrus arrived as the dig-man, the carry-man, the water-man. Now, he is too busy for that kind of thing. Where is Lucy going to find someone to dig, to carry, to water?”
The tables have turned. Now the whites must carry their own water or carry it for the blacks.
It’s a new world, full of rawness, confusion and violence. Even the language is inadequate:
“More and more [Lurie’s] convinced that English is an unfit medium for the truth of South Africa. . . Like a dinosaur expiring and settling in the mud, the language has stiffened.”
The Luries’ world is upended for good when three black men beat the father and take turns raping the daughter. Told in Coetzee’s lean, tough prose, the scene is one of the most horrific in recent fiction.
Lucy, much more than her father, is resigned to the new order. In refusing to leave her home, she believes her ordeal might be “the price one has to pay for staying on. [The rapists] see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I stay here without paying?”
This short (220 pages) book packs more of a punch than any 700-pager of Wolfe or Pynchon or Mailer. It is a sharp jab to the solar plexus, a resounding slap across the face of those still living in the past, or even the present.
Lurie realizes, perhaps not too late, that the past is over, that he must sweep away the old life and face a new one, improvising all the while.
In another grim vision of this world, Coetzee uses the image of a dog kennel where unwanted pets are killed every Sunday and tossed into an incinerator.
That’s where ex-professor Lurie winds up, driving the corpses to the furnace, giving them up the way South Africans must give up their customs, ideas and illusions.
“Disgrace” is not for the faint of spirit.
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