Since my first reading of JM Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K, the Nobel laureate and twice-winner of the Man Booker Prize has remained my favourite writer of fiction.
One of my earliest reviews of his work was on the controversial Disgrace, published in 1999 by Vintage Books and awarded the Man Booker Prize. Four years later, Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. A few years later, a creditable Australian film adaptation was produced in which acclaimed American actor, John Malkovich took the lead role. South African actress, Jessica Haynes portrayed David Lurie’s daughter, Lucy.
JM Coetzee emigrated to Adelaide, Australia, where he still lives today, during a time when the dust had not yet settled on the jacket of his controversial novel. His last published work of fiction was The Childhood of Jesus.
Disgrace is a close observation of psychological rape and repression of the suffering “others” by man. In JM Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading, Derek Attridge questions whether Disgrace hampers efforts of rebuilding the (South African) country. Athol Fugard, in the “London Sunday Times“, angrily rejects the notion of accepting the rape of a white woman as compensation for the atrocities of the apartheid past.
It is not the case. JM Coetzee is not attempting to reconcile pre and post-apartheid South Africa. As Attridge suggests, it is a condemnation of “the dehumanizing effects of the “great rationalization” of end-of century global capitalism”. Referencing the classical myth of Hesiod’s account of the successive ages of men, it is aptly described as The Age of Iron.
Disgrace shows how the wheels come off under a new regime of moral order. There is “power” but no “glory”. “These are puritanical times”, laments the story’s protagonist, David Lurie.
Lurie’s metaphorical ill-treatment of women is a consequence of a post-colonial and post-apartheid patriarchal society. A “clerk in a post-religious age”, he longs for old ways of teaching, reading and writing. It is to the youth that we must look positively, and ironically it is youths that gang-rape his child.”It happens every day, every hour, every minute”.
His arrival in Salem studiously observes his unemotional, non-endearing approach towards the unemotional, non-endearing and detached New Age as he moves unfeelingly to his “day of testing”.
The choice of destination for Lurie’s moment of truth is historically significant. The first English settlers arrived in the Eastern Cape in 1820. Salem alludes to the town of the same name in America where Puritans first settled in the seventeenth century. It is notorious for its “witch trials”.
The inter-textual preoccupations with the poet, Byron and the past, is telling. Lurie’s amoral sexual behaviour is compared to Byron’s own sexual depravity. They do not imagine women as suitable intellectual partners, but rather as their “objects of desire”. Byron is an icon of the great Romantic age. On Lucy’s (Lurie’s daughter) smallholding in Salem in the Eastern Cape, Lurie reads “Byron’s letters of 1820”!
Lurie’s less than satisfying life is brought to a dramatic halt after he collides with his most significant “other”, Lucy, who is later raped. Circumstances worsening, he awakens to the moral consequences of his actions (the ‘rape’ of his student, Melanie Isaacs) and questions his behaviour towards women.
“Every woman I have been close to has taught me something about myself.”
“To that extent they have made me a better person.”
“I hope you are not claiming the reverse as well. That knowing you has turned your women into better people.”
The suffering of “others”, no longer in women only, but also in the dogs on Lucy’s smallholding and Bev Armstrong’s clinic, and in Petrus’ (Lucy’s co-proprietor) goats, becomes important to Lurie. Tied to a pole, the goats are set free by him.
“A bond seems to have come into existence between himself and the two Persians, he does not know how.”
Lucy’s marriage to Petrus is courageous, but unbelievable. This fictional event is a significant counter to the changing cultural and economic landscape of the new South Africa. Rather than mourn the passing of the old order as Lurie does, she chooses to adapt and is victorious. She advise him; “You should try and be a good person too.” Reminiscent of Mrs Curren’s confession in Age of Iron that “to be a good person is not enough” Lurie concedes; “A good person. Not a bad resolution to make, in dark times.”
Lucy masks the “disgrace” of her rape and the bringing up of a bastard child in a new world. So too does the narrative mask the vivid descriptions of her ordeal, unlike rape scenes of the colonial order in earlier texts of Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country. While Lurie struggles with his own “disgrace” and the suffering of “others” reflected in the animals, Lucy remains a trustworthy human custodian.
According to Attridge, Coetzee questions the notion of cost. There must be a way of building a new, just state, “not founded on the elimination of unpredictability, singularity and excess.” It is a state which responds to the “other” and what has made the “other”. It recognises its past, and puts trust in a different future.
It could be called a “state of grace.”