After reading earlier this year, that JM Coetzee has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for his work ‘The Schooldays of Jesus,’ I decided it was high time I began to read some of his work. Given that he has won the Man Booker Prize twice, for ‘Life and Times of Michael K’ (1983) and ‘Disgrace’ in (1999) he could be the first writer to win it a record three times, if he wins this year.
I borrowed a beautiful hard back copy of ‘Disgrace’ from my father’s vast collection of books. I now understand why Coetzee is so highly respected, if somewhat controversial in his native South Africa. His prose is exquisite, and he makes it look effortless which is all the more incredible.
Disgrace tells the story of university professor David Lurie, who loses his job after having an affair with one of his students. The student in question Melanie Isaacs does not initially seem to reject his advances, and although the sex may be far from passionate on her part she does not object. However, she later brings a charge against him, which leads to him leaving the university in disgrace.
He goes to stay on his daughter Lucy’s farm in the Eastern Cape, where he helps her take care of her stray dogs and he helps out on the farm. He meets Petrus, who describes himself as ‘the gardener and the dog man’ but we soon come to realize that he is much more than that and he has plans and plenty of them.
I won’t give away any more of the plot, but suffice to say what happens next on the farm will change Lucy and David’s lives forever.
A difficult and at times highly depressing novel, through David and Lucy’s complex relationship, we see who holds the power in a still racially segregated South Africa.
Coetzee uses the animals as a way to show the cruelty of man’s inhumanity to man. At the dog shelter where he helps remove the dogs who have been put down, the owner says:
‘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.’
David Lurie feels shame and guilt over the on-going savagery shown towards animals throughout, and his pain is visceral, although he ends up feeling useless to prevent it.
The characters in the novel seemed to me to be somewhat resigned to their fate, in particular Lucy, who doesn’t put up any kind of fight at all to change her tragic circumstances. It is as if the winds of change have come, and they are utterly powerless to stop them or make their lives better.
There are power struggles and then there is cruelty and horror, and Coetzee shows the thin line between the two sadly continues to exist in South Africa.
A brilliant novel, but not for the faint hearted. A novel that stayed with me long after I had finished reading it, and one which, in my view, thoroughly deserved all the plaudits it received.
I have not yet decided which of his novels to read next. I will let you know. Any suggestions?