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In Retrospect: “Disgrace,” Coetzee’s Masterpiece


The following essay from novelist Tony D’Souza continues the NBCC’s In Retrospect series, with an essay on J.M. Coetzee’s 1999 novel “Disgrace,” which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award in fiction and winner of the Booker Prize. (Read NBCC member Andrew O’Hehir’s review of “Disgrace” in Salon here.)

J.M Coetzee’s “Disgrace” is about a lot of things, but at its heart it is an anatomy of racial hierarchy change in contemporary South Africa. A very quiet side note to this is its analysis of man’s disgraceful treatment of animals. “Disgrace” is a pitiless and errorless book about the condition of the human experience at the end of the twentieth century; while not altogether without hope, the book and its title is a condemnation of the basic state of modern humanity.

What happens in this book can be summed up quickly. Professor David Lurie, a white, thoroughly Western, classical intellectual and defender of the canon forces himself upon an undergraduate student who at first invites his advances. Lurie has done this sort of thing before, but he is aging and less in tune with what he can and can’t get away with. Through machinations that may or may not be of her own accord, the girl, Melanie Isaacs, brings an abuse charge against the professor, and his stubborn refusal to acknowledge what he has done as well as the changed context of his post-Apartheid nation lead to his dismissal in ‘disgrace’ from the university. He takes refuge on his daughter Lucy’s farm in the Eastern Cape.

There we are introduced to Petrus, her black neighbor who is slowly taking advantage of the changed social order to lift himself from a “dog-man” to a substantial land holder. Lucy is nearly alone in her refusal to join the “white-flight” exodus out of such predominantly black areas; in the book’s most dramatic scene she is raped by three black men as her father is locked in a bathroom and set afire. The dogs that she tends and loves are massacred with her own gun; her father is left to deal on his own with her abuse, which becomes a metaphor for the abuse of white South Africa by the black South Africa that is as angry as it ever was in its new empowerment. Lucy becomes pregnant during the attack and decides not only not to press charges against her attackers, but to keep the child; her father David, who has lost everything, ends the book with a vision of his daughter working stooped over in her fields. He sees her as a peasant; he understands that all the centuries of white rule and progress in the country have come to naught.

“Disgrace” is the definitive work on South Africa’s present state. In an early dramatic scene, Lurie is confronted by Melanie Isaacs’s father outside of his office at the university. Though the girl’s father is white, as is Lurie, his words speak to the anger that is the inheritance of forcible white rule in South Africa:

“‘Professor,’ he begins, laying heavy stress on the word, ‘you may be very educated and all that, but what you have done is not right…We put our children in the hands of you people because we think we can trust you. If we can’t trust the university, who can we trust?…No, Professor Lurie, you may be big and mighty and have all kinds of degrees, but if I was you I’d be very ashamed of myself, so help me God. If I’ve got hold of the wrong end of the stick, now is your chance to say, but I don’t think so, I can see it from your face.’” And when Lurie finds the accusation beneath him and turns away, the girl’s father shouts, “‘You can’t just run away like that! You have not heard the last of it, I tell you!’”

And indeed Lurie is not able to just run away, as the last Apartheid rulers could not avoid the inquiries and judgments of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In scenes wholly representative of that body, and as familiar as any university judiciary committee in the newly liberalized West, Lurie is called to account for his harassment of Melanie before a mixed raced panel: “At five o’clock he is waiting in the corridor. Aram Hakim, sleek and youthful, emerges and ushers him in. There are already two persons in the room: Elaine Winter, chair of his department, and Farodia Rassool from Social Sciences, who chairs the university committee on discrimination…”

What this panel wants most from Lurie is an apology, a statement of admission that what he has done was wrong. And like a stalwart of the old order, Lurie refuses to admit anything but his actions. Fine enough in most cases, but not in South Africa, where culprits cannot be sent away but must somehow be woven into the fabric of society. What the new order wants from the old is not an admission of guilt, but a kowtow, one that Lurie is unwilling to give. One of his non-white colleagues offers Lurie this bit of advice, “‘Take a yellow card. Minimize the damage, wait for the scandal to blow over…Sensitivity training. Community service. Counseling. Whatever you can negotiate.’”

“‘Counseling? I need counseling?’” Lurie incredulously asks. Even friendly colleagues soon abandon him, so thorough is Lurie’s inability to understand how his world has changed. In an example of Coetzee’s most beautiful writing, the height of the media frenzy that surrounds Lurie’s trial is described like this: “They circle around him like hunters who have cornered a strange beast and do not know how to finish it off.”

Lurie is stripped of his titles and rank and finds himself on the rural farm of his lesbian daughter Lucy. Lucy is making do as the last hanger-on of a white hippie commune in the Eastern Cape, growing vegetables and flowers for market and keeping a boarding kennel of guard dogs, all those Rottweilers and German Shepherds and ridgebacks that upheld and became symbols for the worst of white rule’s abuses. Here Lurie meets Petrus, who introduces himself to the professor in this way, “‘I look after the dogs and I work in the garden…I am the gardener and the dog-man.’ He reflects for a moment. ‘The dog-man,’ he repeats, savoring the phrase.”

Once upon a time in South Africa, Petrus would have been just that, the impoverished and disenfranchised dog-man, the hired man who shoveled shit and fed offal to Lucy’s dogs. But the South Africa that Lurie would not bow to at the university has changed so thoroughly here in its rural reaches that the irony with which Petrus introduces himself is lost on neither of them. For though Petrus does tend to Lucy’s dogs for a wage, he has gained his own holding of land which abuts Lucy’s farm, is building a house, is gaining more. While Petrus labors at his fields and schemes on how to make Lucy’s land his own, Lurie looks at his refuge on his daughter’s farm as a time to finally complete his life’s opus: an opera about Byron’s last amorous days in Italy.

Here, Coetzee sets up a wonderful juxtaposition about the two cultures that have just changed positions. The work of Petrus’ ascendant black Africa has to do with toil and sweat and the growth of the soil, while the work of Lurie’s descendent white Africa has to do with an opera that most likely will never be completed and, as Lurie freely admits to himself, will never make any money. All through this book, Coetzee subtly reveals the ways in which the West has become irrelevant in South Africa. On Lucy’s farm, Lurie must contend with people who speak African languages he does not and will never know, who know nothing of Byron nor anyone else in the Western canon, who do not treasure these things, who are happy to ransack white homes for food and electronics but who leave the works of the great Western canon behind. As Lurie sees it, the crimes committed against himself and his daughter, indeed the violent crimes vivisecting the country as it was at Apartheid’s end, are not simply crimes, but individual sallies in a great black war of vengeance. This is illuminated most clearly when Lurie returns to his apartment in Cape Town:

“He wanders through the house taking a census of his losses. His bedroom has been ransacked, the cupboards yawn bare. His sound equipment is gone, his tapes and records, his computer equipment. In his study the desk and filing cabinet have been broken open; papers are scattered everywhere. The kitchen has been thoroughly stripped…No ordinary burglary. A raiding party moving in, cleaning out the site, retreating laden with bags, boxes, suitcases. Booty; war reparations; another incident in the great campaign of redistribution. Who is at this moment wearing his shoes? Have Beethoven and Janá cek found homes for themselves or have they been tossed out on the rubbish heap?” The reader can’t help but amending the final line with the obvious conclusion, ‘the rubbish heap of history.’

Coetzee is an agile writer, filling his pages with action and images that make “Disgrace” the page-turner that it is. “Things fall apart” in a moment in Coetzee, just as for someone like Lurie they did in his home country with the ’94 change of government. The anger and tensions building in “Disgrace” finally spill across the page on a day like any other on the farm, the beautiful wild geese who visit coasting across the surface of Lucy’s irrigation dam. Lucy and her father have taken two of the dogs, Dobermans, out for a long walk, they discuss history, symbolism and psychology in relation to Lurie’s dismissal from the university; when they return to the house, the dogs, guards and watchdogs all, are in an uproar, and three black men are waiting for them. The men have a story about a sick woman in the act of childbirth, it’s an emergency, may they use the phone? Lucy cages the dogs and lets the men in. Here Coetzee reveals the breadth of his mastery. The action is quick and definitive; there is nothing theoretical about it:

“A blow catches [Lurie] on the crown of the head. He has time to think, If I am still conscious then I am all right, before his limbs to water and he crumples. He is aware of being dragged across the kitchen floor…He is in the lavatory, the lavatory of Lucy’s house. Dizzily he gets to his feet. The door is locked, the key is gone…So it has come, the day of testing. Without warning, without fanfare, it is here, and he is in the middle of it…The door opens, knocking him off balance…‘The keys,’ says the man…The man raises the bottle. His face is placid, without trace of anger. It is merely a job he is doing: getting someone to hand over an article. If it entails hitting him with a bottle, he will hit him, hit him as many times as is necessary…[Lurie] speaks Italian, he speaks French, but Italian and French will not save him here in darkest Africa…Mission work: what has it left behind…Nothing that he can see…Now the tall man appears from around the front, carrying the rifle. With practiced ease he brings a cartridge up into the breech, thrusts the muzzle into the dogs’ cage…There is a heavy report; blood and brains splatter the cage.”

Throughout the attack, Lurie remains locked in the bathroom, watching the violence through the bars over the bathroom’s small window, imprisoned by the lock and heavy door of his white culture’s own device. It’s an image that call to mind Robben Island.

The dogs are slaughtered, Lucy is raped, Lurie is doused with methylated spirits and set afire. When the door to the bathroom is momentarily opened so that the men can toss the spirits onto him, what Lurie sees reveals the genius of Coetzee’s artistic eye, “…he glimpses the boy in the flowered shirt, eating from a tub of ice cream.”

If Lurie had felt bitter and helpless before in this changed and unfamiliar world, the attack leaves him broken. He fixates on what happened to Lucy in her bedroom at the hands of those men, an act he could not see; his mind runs wild with his imagining of it: “No wonder [women] are so vehement against rape…Rape, god of chaos and mixture, violator of seclusions. Raping a lesbian worse than raping a virgin: more of a blow. Did they know what they were up to, those men? Had word got around?”

Lurie’s relationship with his daughter has always been strained. Lucy knows her father’s history with women, knows that the trouble he has brought on himself throughout his life because of them has been wholly of his own making. In a reverie, Lurie thinks of all those women like this, “…a stream of images pours down, images of women he has known on two continents, some from so far away in time that he barely recognizes them. Like leaves blown on the wind, pell-mell, they pass before him. A fair field full of folk: hundreds of lives all tangled with his. He holds his breath, willing the vision to continue. What happened to them, all those women, all those lives? Are there moments when they too, or some of them, are plunged without warning into the ocean of memory? The German girl: is it possible that at this very instant she is remembering the man who picked her up on that roadside in Africa and spent the night with her? Enriched: that was the word the newspapers picked on to jeer at. A stupid word to let slip, under the circumstances, yet now, at this moment, he would stand by it. By Melanie, by the girl in Touws River; by Rosalind, Bev Shaw, Soraya: by each of them he was enriched, and by others too, even the least of them, even the failures. Like a flower blooming in his breast, his heart floods with thankfulness.”

Just as Lurie passes judgment on blacks who commit crimes against whites in what he terms “the great campaign of redistribution,” his reverie of women, like all those gilded monuments to progress and colonialism that litter the capitals of the Western World, should be judged on equal terms. While some of his adventures with women were mutually “enriching,” others were not—his harassment of Melanie Isaacs was not, nor was his stalking of the “exotic” prostitute Soraya early in the book. Colonialism, and white South Africa, when judged through this prism, might rightly be lauded for the tractors and radios that people like Petrus and Lucy’s rapists covet and use, but what cannot be forgotten are all the ways in which the colonizer simply took from the colonized to the “enrichment” of themselves. It might be nice to remember the brown arms of the women of the world’s palm-fringed coasts, but the guns and steel that conquered those coasts and allowed those memories to be made were fired and swung by white hearts drunk with darkness.

Lucy has not forgotten this history, and it cannot be said that Lurie has forgotten it either. Whenever some abuse visits them from the world of the blacks, Lurie is quick to explain it away to perceived wrongs being made right. But where he and Lucy differ is that Lurie, just as in his refusal to apologize for his victimization of Melanie, does not truly see his fault in history; Lucy does, so much so that she even offers her body to it in penance. When one of her rapists returns and is revealed to be a relative of her neighbor Petrus, Lurie wants to report it to the police. Lucy stays him. “‘Don’t shout at me, David. This is my life. I am the one who has to live here…As for Petrus, he is not some hired laborer whom I can sack because in my opinion he is mixed up with the wrong people. That’s all gone, gone with the wind.’” And later, of her rape and her response to it, she says, “‘It was so personal…It was done with such personal hatred. That was what stunned me more than anything. The rest was…expected. But why did they hate me so? I had never set eyes on them…I think they have done it before…At least the two older ones. I think they are rapists first and foremost. Stealing things is just incidental. A side-line. I think they do rape…I think I am in their territory. They have marked me. They will come back for me. …But isn’t there another way of looking at it, David? What if…what if that is the price one has to pay for staying on? Perhaps that is how they look at it; perhaps that is how I should look at it too. They see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying?’”

Her father rejects this, pleads with her, writers her a letter. “‘Dearest Lucy, With all the love in the world, I must say the following. You are on the brink of a dangerous error. You wish to humble yourself before history.’” She writes him this back, “‘…if I leave the farm now I will leave defeated, and will taste that defeat for the rest of my life.’”

Lucy is her own woman, has her own response to this changed hierarchy. Flight to Europe is not acceptable to her, she sees herself as a child of this soil. And now that the lordship of this soil has changed from white to black, she is vastly more willing to meet those terms than David is. Petrus confronts Lurie about Lurie’s threats to turn the rapist brother-in-law in to the police: “‘He is a child. He is my family, my people… You say it is bad, what happened…I also say it is bad. It is bad. But it is finish…It is finish.’” Petrus also offers the white man a solution to the problem of his daughter’s security. “‘He (the rapist) will marry her,’ he says at last. ‘He will marry Lucy, only he is too young, too young to be marry… Maybe one day he can marry, but not now. I will marry.’”

While Lurie is outraged, Lucy is not. She is pregnant, she is poor, she is alone, she is white. She tells her father, “‘Objectively I am a woman alone. I have no brothers. I have a father, but he is far away and anyhow powerless in the terms that matter here. To whom can I turn for protection? To Ettinger? [Ettinger is the last of the old-style, and armed, Boer farmers in the area.] It is just a matter of time before Ettinger is found with a bullet in his back. Practically speaking, there is only Petrus left. Petrus may not be a big man but he is big enough for someone small like me.’”

When her father again expresses indignation, Lucy loses her patience, “‘I don’t believe you get the point, David. Petrus is not offering me a church wedding followed by a honeymoon on the Wild Coast. He is offering an alliance, a deal. I contribute the land, in return for which I am allowed to creep in under his wing. Otherwise, he wants to remind me, I am without protection, I am fair game…it is humiliating. But perhaps that is a good point to start from again…With nothing…No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity…like a dog.’”

Lucy’s final point is made again and again in the book; animals suffer here at the hands of men of all colors. Goats are slaughtered for parties, sheep are staked and starved before their deaths, dogs suffer from the lottery of their own fecundity. In moving passages about Lurie’s volunteer job—his unconscious admission that he does need to do penance in the world—putting them to sleep in a shelter, we see the only true moments of growth that ever come to him: “He has learned…to concentrate all his attention on the animal they are killing, giving it what he no longer has difficulty calling by its proper name: love.” The thoughtless slavery of animals is quietly documented on page after page of “Disgrace,” and sometimes not so quietly as when the gentle woman charged with the destruction of the cast-off dogs says to Lurie, “‘Yes we eat up a lot of animals in this country…It doesn’t seem to do us much good. I’m not sure how we will justify it to them.’” It’s in this that Coetzee reaches beyond, showing that what equalizes and nullifies questions of history and race is the unity of man in its abuse of animals.

Here the curtain falls in the novel on the bad old white South Africa, opens on a newer, humbled one. The night Lurie spends in pillaged apartment is the best metaphor for his end of things: “The lights are cut off, the telephone is dead…he will spend the night in the dark…He is too depressed to act. Let it all go to hell, he thinks, and sinks into a chair and closes his eyes.” Lucy in her fields, “…is becoming a peasant.” And Petrus on his tractor is the new boss. What his rule will mean is not the subject of this book, but the fact of his coming into power is. Of the child that Lucy will soon bear, Lurie thinks this, “So it will go on, a line of existences in which his share, his gift, will grow inexorably less and less, till it may as well be forgotten.”

Wouldn’t it be happy to think so? But what is more likely for South Africa as with so many colonized and troubled places in the world is a metaphor that Coetzee offers us much earlier in the book, when Lurie and Petrus are down together in a drained storage dam, working, doing a nasty job, shoveling out the muck. It’s a tight, fetid place they must inhabit together. Within moments, as a sorry testament to who we really are, the white man and the black man lift their voices in argument. It’s not hopeful, but it’s also not hopeless. “Disgrace,” like that perfect scene, is simply an anatomy of the truth.—Tony D’Souza