Friday, July 4, 2008

"Disgrace" by JM Coetzee

Year of publication: 1999
Genre: novel
Setting and time: Contemporary South Africa
Themes: sexual harassment, rape, post-Apartheid South Africa, race relations

Man Booker Prize, 1999

About the author: John Maxwell Coetzee was born in 1940 in Cape Town, South Africa. His family descends from early Dutch settlers dating to the 17th century. He belongs to a generation of South African writers who raised their voices against apartheid. Although reared in an Afrikaans-speaking family in Cape Town, he attended an English-speaking school and while English became his primary language, he remained fluent in Afrikaans, a language with its origins in Dutch settlers. He has sometimes defended Afrikaners against the stereotype that they are uniformly racist. He was the first author to receive the Booker Prize twice, in 1983 for Life & Times of Michael K and in 1999 for Disgrace. In 2002 he relocated to Australia and became an Australian citizen in 2006. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.

Plot: (*may contain spoilers*) The book tells the story of a Cape Town professor's dismissal from his job after his affair with a young student becomes known. He withdraws to his daughter’s small farm, but she is raped by three black strangers. Horrified, David wants to call the police, but Lucy asks him to tell no one of the rape and her subsequent pregnancy.

Some thoughts: Somebody said that this is supposed to be the best novel written in English in the last 25 years, but I was somehow disappointed. The first 25 pages of the book are very dull: a middle-age professor, David Lurie, complaining about his poor sex life and academic interests. Boring, boring, boring. After that, it gets a little bit better: Lurie joins his daughter at a farm in the Eastern Cape. I liked the novel only when it was set in Lucy’s farm and I so wanted to skip all the other parts, especially when Coetzee rambles on about some ill dogs that have to be put down.
Violence enters the novel by the hands of three black men who rape Lucy and so the problems of post-apartheid South Africa are introduced. Nonetheless, I feel that something was missing: Coetzee doesn’t explain the social reasons for the violence perpetrated by black people on white South Africans and doesn’t even try to explain why white South Africans are so guilty as to meekly accept it. He merely speaks of ‘vengeance’ and 'guilt for the past'. The novel sends a negative message about South Africa: when David asks his daughter if she will love the ‘rape child’ that she is bearing she says: ‘The child? No. How could I? But I will. Love will grow — one can trust Mother Nature for that. I am determined to be a good mother, David. A good mother and a good person. You should try to be a good person too’. Coetzee is very pessimist about the future of his country and many South Africans think such a celebrated author shouldn’t speak like that of his own country. I believe that he was right to be realist and declare that South Africa is no ‘rainbow country’(even though I don’t like depressing novels). Is this why Coetzee left South Africa and became an Australian citizen? Too much violence and uneasiness with a situation he cannot control?
In South Africa, the African National Congress accused Coetzee of representing as brutally as he could the white man’s perspective of the post-Apartheid black man and of implying that in the new regime whites would ‘lose their cards, their weapons, their property, their rights, their dignity’, while ‘the white women will have to sleep with the barbaric black men’ (have a look at this article to know more). As a matter of fact, black men in Coetzee novel are all greedy and evil. I so missed Gordimer while I was reading this book!


  1. Stefania, just a slight is African National Congress. You interchanged the positions of African and National.

    This book is on my to be read list of 100 books. Hmm! I tried my best not to be hurt by some of his descriptions of black Hottentots in Duskland and I was able to use his own words to judge the character. At first I thought he was a pro-apartheid person but realised that he rather spoke against it. Interesting. I was searching for the main reason why he became a citizen of Australia but couldn't find any. Thanks for the link too.

  2. I am reading this book and I have to agree with much of what you wrote. From the anticipation I felt at reading a Nobel winning African writer, I am quite disappointed.

    The book reads quite depressingly and the protagonist seems more than a little socially challenged. David Lurie for all his erudition seems capable of deep analysis of all but his own depravities, and they are many and off-putting: chronic-womanizing, paedophilic tendencies, racism and the list goes on.

    Every sentence alienates me more and more from this main character and Coetzee's work in general.


  3. @Nana: Thank you for correcting me. For some reason I didn't change that when you posted your comment, but now I have. By the way, that name doesn't make much sense to me in either way, since Africa is not a nation!

    @Sel: I've beem willing to reread it in a while, maybe with the help of an essay or something. I feel I was to quick to judge, but I still prefer Nadine Gordimer to Coetzee.