My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“After an impulsive affair with a student, David Lurie is forced to resign from the University where he teaches poetry. He retreats to his daughter’s isolated smallholding in the South African bush, where, for a time, the natural rhythms of the farm promise to harmonise his discordant life. But the balance of power in the country is slowly shifting, and a savage attack is to bring into relief all the fault lines in his life.”
Chosen to coincide with the South African 2010 World Cup, this is the first time I’ve had the pleasure of reading Coetzee. Here the word ‘pleasure’ is not used in the usual way, because nothing was pleasurable or nice about this novel. It is used to indicate the enjoyment I derived from the dexterity and ruthlessness of Coetzee’s writing. It is a rare and wonderful thing to witness an author treating his creations like lifeless, worthless paper dolls; and this is what I felt David Lurie, his daughter and all the other characters really were. The theme of ‘disgrace’ runs heavily through the novel, where Coetzee analyses the varying degrees of the ‘fall’ with disturbing clarity.
Dogs feature as a major symbolic significance in Coetzee’s design, as time and time again we see humans reduced to a simple, crude set of impulses that serve to throw a wrench into centuries of ‘cultural grooming’ that have taught us to repress and ignore our base needs.
As I stated earlier, this isn’t a nice story. There were many moments where I read on in disbelief as Coetzee seemed to be almost ‘punishing’ his characters by putting them through things that I seemed unnecessary. I cared for these characters; for David and Lucy who see South Africa as their homeland, for Petrus who being a native South African and descendent of a once noble people who were exploited by White invaders now have to share their land with them. The story begins with David and his sexual transgression with a student, but this triggers a whole series of incidents that has a startling domino-effect on the course of everyone’s lives.
Unlike most stories, the stasis at the beginning with David and his respectable job, his daughter’s adventurous outing as a farmer in the bush is never returned to. The events lead to an undoing, the humiliation and the disgrace of the characters are permanent. All Coetzee leaves us with is a sense that at least the main character, David, has finally learned his lesson (eventually leaving his high and mighty ways, cowed by the terrible event that scars his daughter). The lesson here is deep and complex. It is to do with animal instincts, how none of us are above them, and how unchecked they can bring misfortune upon us and our loved ones. It is about karma, and having our sins return to visit us in the worst form possible: by having our children pay for them. It is about accepting the bitter pill of defeat and learning when to surrender to the powers that be, which Lucy teaches her wayward father by the extraordinary strength she displays in the face of her own personal disgrace.
“How humiliating,’ he says finally. ‘Such high hopes, and to end like this.”
“Yes, I agree, it is humiliating. But perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing. Not with nothing but. With nothing. No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity.’
“Like a dog.”
“Yes, like a dog.”
This is a story that will stay with me for a long time, as the most powerful things are not those that were expressed, but rather the things that were left unsaid. With this book Coetzee has given me a glimpse of the complexity of South African history, the ethnic discord between its people and the awful reality that some actions really can leave a permanent mark on our lives.
- JM Coetzee and Paul Auster letters to be published next spring (larkalong.wordpress.com)
- Review: JM Coetzee: A Life in Writing (dailymaverick.co.za)
- Disgrace: JM Coetzee humiliates himself in Johannesburg. Or does he? (dailymaverick.co.za)