Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

Set in post-apartheid South Africa, Nobel Prize winning author J.M. Coetzee’s second novel ‘Disgrace’ won the Booker Prize in 1999, the same year in which it was published. Such illustrious credentials and sheer curiosity prompted me to pick the book up from a local book-store a few months ago. What I did not expect was a hard-hitting, no-bones-spared story of a Cape Town University College professor, David Lurie, whose life would take a sudden dip into the murky waters of ethical conflicts, post-apartheid violence, and insecurity, finally sinking into a vast lake of disgrace before emerging stronger and more resilient.

David Lurie, who has long been planning to write a chamber opera on the life of the poet Byron, is fifty-two, divorced, lonely and bored. His classes evoke no response from his students and teaching is a mere means of livelihood. A chance meeting with an attractive student in his class leads to an affair, which upon discovery provokes a suspension from the university on grounds of misconduct. As the news spreads round the university campus and makes it to the newspapers, the disgraced professor leaves town to join his young daughter Lucy in the town of Salem where she has chosen to live alone and raise a farm. Life in the farm is sedentary and un-eventful until an incident of unimaginable terror rips apart their lives. Father and daughter are attacked by a band of natives who rob the house, nearly kill him while raping the daughter and leaving her pregnant.

As they struggle to pick up the remaining bits of their lives, David Lurie is tormented by Lucy’s indifference to the incident. She knows the culprits and yet neither she nor her neighbors try to denounce them. As the father of a daughter who has been subject to such a heinous crime, David Lurie is helpless because he was unable to protect her then and avenge the atrocity now. Instead, he watches impatiently, as life gets back to normal in the farm and Lucy decides to go ahead and give birth to the child she is carrying.

Disgrace portrays the angst ridden world of the white population in post-apartheid South Africa. Once the powerful class, they are now the centre of a backlash which they cannot withstand. David Lurie’s inability to come to terms with the power shift and his daughter’s acceptance of the ways of the new country is the totem pole of the novel. The novel examines the sentiments of the native population that is friendly with the white on personal terms but has no generic empathy for the community. Coetzee’s novels typically push the protagonist with their back to the wall only to watch them fight or come to terms with the humiliation and indignation of their circumstances. In this novel, Lucy’s rapist turns out to be the fifteen year old brother-in-law of her neighbor. After the incident, the neighbor offers to marry Lucy even though he has two other wives. He wishes to own her land in dowry and in exchange, protect her from such miscreants in the future. David Lurie who has sufficient money to send his daughter to Holland where she can go back to a normal civilized life has to reconcile with this unusual situation when his daughter accepts the offer.

The analogy between strange twists and turns of David Lurie's life and that of the poet Byron influences the opera that he is composing. Where he once planned to write about the eternal love between Byron and his mistress Teresa, he now depicts pain and agony as they separate and their desires remain unfulfilled. As Allegra, Byron’s five year daughter lies dying of malaria and cries for her father, David Lurie’s own helplessness and frustration at his daughter’s condition creeps in front.

Disgrace is an excellent novel written in a mere two hundred and twenty pages. Coetzee’s deep understanding of Romantic literature and lucid language ooze the right emotions and provide the perfect setting for the story of a father and daughter who learn to put the past behind, after their lives have been shattered by disgrace.

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