JM Coetzee’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, Disgrace, continues to captivate me, even after numerous readings.
Nearly fifteen years after its first publication, it is still relevant in the context of South Africa’s multicultural society still in evolution. The cool, calculated crispness and liminality of Coetzee’s voice remains unique, so much so that it still stands head and shoulders above texts with similar themes of apartheid and post-colonialism and a number of sub-themes related to poetry, history and sexual power.
While Coetzee continues his experimentation with intertexts, for instance in the case of the protagonist David Lurie’s obsessive preoccupation with Byron the poet and the vivid description of the dry, but fertile Eastern Cape landscape which is compared with the sixteenth century puritanical American town Salem, the landscape in which Disgrace is set, from cool evening walks through the botanical garden near the university where Professor Lurie teaches to the dry small holding occupied by his daughter, Lucy, is realistic and imaginary. Characterisation is realistic as well.
While the development of the novel’s themes are complex, it is not uncommon and is in context with the broad landscape of South Africa, past and present. Critically, this landscape is extended beyond South Africa’s borders when seen in light of universal preoccupations with the protagonist’s behaviour, ruthless at times, and thoughts. In another memorable Coetzee text, Age of Iron, that story’s protagonist, a retired schoolteacher and elderly woman, Mrs Curren, asks what it takes to be a good person in this world. Indeed, she remarks that it is not enough to be a good person.
An awareness of Coetzee’s literary techniques has been heightened over the years, from his first foray into a post-apartheid universe and into the complex and dangerous arena in which we find ourselves today. The dramatic and chiselled immediacy of Coetzee’s use of the present tense still endures since first reading the controversial and multi-layered opening lines of Disgrace;
“For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.”