No country, this, for old men
Disgrace, Mr. Coetzee’s second claim to Booker fame, starts rather inconspicuously with an affair between a professor in his late 50s (David Lurie) and his 20 year old student (Melanie Isaacs). When the affair turns sour, he is denounced and forced to resign his post at the university. This happens throughout the first third of the book, and you expect the rest of it to be about this transgression – and possibly more others to form a shady sexual past. Perhaps compelling, but also common. Mr. Coetzee however thwarts any mediocre expectations and, when he sends David to visit his daughter Lucy, who is living on a farm in rural South Africa, he makes the novel about alienation, revenge and sacrifice and a torn post-apartheid RSA. Lucy is David’s daughter from his first marriage; though a city girl (for a while she even lived in Holland with her mother) she chooses life in the country, chooses to grow flowers, vegetables and dogs. While she takes David in as a guest after the scandal, an attack on the house by 3 black men in which she is gang raped, he is set on fire and a lot of her possession are stolen awake in the man his long unexercised paternal instincts. Lucy is shocked to the core by what happened to her and falls in depression, while he tries – mostly unsuccessfully, to keep things together. Their mostly ambiguous relationship with Petrus, a black man initially hired by Lucy as help, but who has now started to move up and put together his own farm and whom David suspects had a hand in the attacks, wanting to intimidate the woman and force her to abandon the land only adds up to the strain on the father-daughter relationship. David doesn’t understand (and here I must concur with him) why Lucy wouldn’t want to leave the place that caused her such grief, why she would make any sacrifice, even that of dignity, to stay there and finally, why she will not give up the baby that will be born as a consequence of the rape. But, though he doesn’t understand and though he tries his best to change her mind on any aspect, in the end he decides to be there for her and he moves in the city nearby – a sense of selflessness and devotion that is quite moving.
The title word is a state in which, at some point, most of the characters live: David, when he is practically chased out of Cape Town and oncemore as he cannot do a thing to help his daughter, Lucy, after her rape and, in David’s opinion, once she refuses to come out with the full story and even the dogs that Bev Shaw puts down. Disgrace – when there is nothing else left. For David, it turns out to be a journey which mirrors his Byron opera – starting off as a classical piece and ending up a distorted, one-note lament by the abandoned.
My best friend, who read the book before I did, pointed out that Mr. Coetzee’s characters are unlikable, that they don’t really command sympathy. At the time, I took this to mean that they are evil or amoral, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized she is probably right. You don’t like, you can’t really embrace any of his characters – but you can find redeeming qualities in any of them: David’s love for his daughter or the magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians eventually standing up for those without any hope. Come to think of it, both are old men leering and lusting after young flesh – which is what brings both of them down eventually. From rock bottom, the only way to go is up. Even so, David’s motivations are perhaps the easiest to understand, his psyche is easiest to slip into. Why Lucy chooses to stay, accepting a rather degrading pact with Petrus, why Mr. Isaacs invites his daughter’s supposed molester to dinner – these choices belong to a realm of logic, sentiment of justice which I am not privy to. The more I think about it, the more it strikes me that David Lurie might as well be a toned down, tame version of the magistrate (in Waiting for the Barbarians).
While I really enjoyed reading this – and while it’s widely accepted that it’s Mr. Coetzee’s best work to date, I can honestly say that, for me, the best one was Waiting for the barbarians. At time I read it (more than a year ago) I was quite ambivalent towards it, but looking back, its questions and emotions stayed with me and, unconsciously, it turned out to be the yardstick by which I measure any other of his novels. But at least now I know I really like Mr. Coetzee’s works 😀
The movie, starring John Malkovich came out in 2008 (but as far as I know, failed to make a big impression, and I’ve yet to see it) and you can find book reviews at NYT, Salon or London review of Books.