(J.M. Coetzee)

David Lurie, Capetown Professor of Communications (nee Romance Literature)

catches his favourite escort in a domestic moment, causing her to retire for

shame, so he starts a pilot ‘A’s for lays’ scheme that forces him from

campus, pride (in self and deed) stopping him from recanting.  This episode

could fill a novel in itself (shades of Kafka or Helen Garner here, as the

University Board of Enquiry into the harassment charge, whilst containing

some members who are Lurie’s allies or at least neutral, reveal, in

time-honoured ivy league fashion, another quasi-judicial body with complete

ignorance of the maxim nemo judex in sua causa).  Instead, JMC uses it as a

platform to launch a bigger story, told in classically taut, unclouded,

prose style.  This story is that of the irrelevant white minority in South

Africa, marginalized, resented, confined to gated communities or holed up in

farm-lets, mostly armed to the teeth.  Lurie’s daughter, Lucy, is not armed

to the teeth – her small landholding is vulnerable, dependent on the

presence and tacit protection of her indigenous neighbour, Petrus.   The

disgraced Lurie moves in with Lucy and together they represent the monstrous

legacy of apartheid, as passive collaborators and little blankes, too

trivial for Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, who can just get out of

our cars, out of our country, and out of our way.

James Wood wrote a very perceptive (natch) essay on the book in ‘The

Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel’ (2004), in which he

correctly observes that Coetzee, as with most writers of genius, knows just as much

what to leave out as to include.  Yet Wood complains that too much is left out;

descriptions are over-sparing, such as the objectively inadequate run-down

of Melanie’s tedious boyfriend; too often, Wood memorably complains, Lurie

stands as “merely the voyeur of his own weary clarities.”  This did not

bother TVC at all, personally – Lurie is a dinosaur, too damaged and

defeated to adapt, too tired to learn new tricks or discard old ones, too

self-centred to waste time noticing details of those he rejects.  Lucy tells

him that “You behave as if everything I do is part of the story of your

life.”  This from a daughter to her father!  It reflects their different

responses to aspects of the key event of the book, where three nie-blankes

rob and gangbang Lucy, torch and carjack Dad and massacre the housed dogs.

He wants retribution or justice; she wants to deny all, even when she falls

pregnant from the incident.  She insists on having the child – she is

prepared to enter into a marriage of convenience and security with Petrus,

who covets her land, even though she understands he is somehow complicit in

the crime.  And consistent with our jaundiced view of her new-age, unwashed,

mushily liberal, perversely phallocentric Sapphic world-view, Lucy suggests

that the rape may be the tax she pays, the debt she owes, to stay, an

outrageous and radical musing that shocks and disturbs, even raising doubts

as to her sanity, or confirming her need to think madly to stay sane.


Racism in Africa is a monolithic strategem – whilst the tactics shift.  The

dispossessed retake, oppressors are evicted, might making right a constant,

each isolated infamy “another incident in the great campaign of

redistribution” (as Lurie observes when he returns to find his Capetown flat

trashed and looted).  But there are degrees of racism, from its ancient

utility to its modern confusion.  The exploitation of an Oppenheimer is

arguably benign compared to, say, the ideas of Mr. Terre’Blanche.  And it is

here that Coetzee shines in particular: he dares us to box at shadows and

rank amongst the depressingly rich array of brutality, shame, despair,

disgrace in his book.  Lurie’s failure to act in loco parentis; his failure

to save Lucy; his indifference to the future; Lucy’s shame as a victim; his

despair at running out of puff, artistically, “as grey and even and

unimportant, in the larger scheme, as a headache”; the stench of defeat

pungent to both dogs and men; the smell of life leaving little lost dogs.

One can easily draw parallels, on different levels, but to assign

priorities?  Coetzee instead lets us wallow and ‘enrich’ ourselves and grow

as does his protagonist: infinitesimally, reluctantly, grumpily, painfully,

illogically.  The Professor is occasionally brutal in word and thought,

going out of his way to offend, over-thinking things, but he is softened by

events.  His operetta, based on Byron in Italy, morphs from a romance of

youthful passion to an elegiac comic howl.  He searches out his victimized

student and her family and wrings an apology from himself.  In a great

Freudian inversion, he guides dogs to canine heaven and embraces Bev Shaw,

his Angel of Death.  He ‘grows’ organically, realistically, while his body

and reputation diminish.  That is perhaps the one spark of hope in this

brilliant, deeply bleak and unlovable work of otchayanie (despair)

[NOTE: In the 2/4/16 Spectator, Aiden Hartley said: “After Disgrace, J. M. Coetzee emigrated to Australia – and hasn’t published a decent novel since. He evacuated his subject.  For Africa-born whites, the one thing worse than staying is leaving.  The left brain urges you to settle in a safe economy with prospects, where the right brain dies.  Africa’s contradictions are the author’s larder, hung with the biltong of sinewy emotions.”  Discuss.]


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