Review | J. M. Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’| 1999 Booker Winner | by Abhinita Mohanty

Spoiler alert.

published1 July 1999
AuthorJohn Maxwell Coetzee
Original language: English
GenresNovel, Domestic Fiction
AwardsBooker Prize

The postcolonial period in South Africa saw the end of apartheid and the beginning of an escalating civil war and violence. The suppression and exploitation had created fragmented identities coupled with uneven development. It led to white privilege and relegated the blacks as ‘second class’ citizens. The brutal conflicts and violence that haunted the country during the 1990s had its roots in the colonial legacy of apartheid. 

J.M. Coetzee’s work ‘Disgrace’ is an attempt to tell the implication of such violence in the lives of ordinary, white and black citizens of South Africa. The beauty of this fictional work lies in crafting the emotions of individuals in the backdrop of their political situation. However, ‘Disgrace‘ goes further by bringing out the psychological nuances of the victims without deifying them. 

The protagonist David Lurie is an adjunct professor of communications at Cape Town Technical University. The middle-aged professor’s attitude to life is the first sentence of the book. “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well”. Lurie is not the hero, but a detached soul whose world wombs around his mind, beyond that is an abstraction. This solipsistic existence makes him a ‘flawed’ human being. In the beginning, the reader meets Laurie on his Thursday noon escapades. He loses himself in the arms of Soraya, a prostitute. He looks at his relationship with Soraya as uncomplicated as his desires. He pays for a service and enjoys the perk of a good company without complexities of being in a relationship, and he does not have traits to be in meaningful relationships.

Laurie’s character is neither textbook evil nor heroic. He is human, and often the book looks like a journey into his mind. Coetzee writes most of the events in the book, as interpreted by Laurie. When Laurie seduces his reluctant student, Melanie to have an affair with him, and he justifies it with a “a woman’s beauty does not belong to her alone. It is a part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it”. Melanie does not resist, but “all she does is avert herself”. The relationship between a professor and a young student shows the stark imbalance of power between the two and the lines between consent and rape gets dangerously blurred. It is interesting to imagine what kind of response ‘Disgrace’ would elicit if it was published in recent years and not in 1996. Such affairs were not uncommon in academia, intelligentsia, arts and other related fields. People barely took notice, until recently. 

However, in the novel, Laurie is disgraced. It is the South Africa of the 90s and white men like Laurie no longer have power and control. Laurie believes that as an old man, he has the “right not to change”. His subsequent trial proves futile as he does not yield to the pressure of public repentance. Instead, Laurie blurts out to the press that he was “enriched by the experience”. He voluntarily resigns from his position and leaves for his daughter Lucy’s rural farm holding.

He retreats and adapts himself to the rural life, and develops a calming relationship with his daughter. Lucy lives the life of a ‘farmer’ in a small landholding. Laurie works in the farm and volunteers in an animal shelter, where his main job is to dispose of the bodies of euthanized dogs. At some level, he relates to these dogs and ensures that they get a proper farewell. 

Blacks are in the majority in the countryside, including Lucy’s employee and caretaker Petrus. Underneath the tranquility of rural life, brews the uneasy repercussions of shifting power balance in the country. Though Lucy has leased a part of her landholding to Petrus and his family, Petrus’ intentions do not seem to be honest. The reader is thrown off balance along with Lucy when she is raped by three black men, who also try to burn Laurie, alive. Laurie survives with minor burns, but the assault leaves scars in Lucy’s psyche forever. This incident of violence disrupts their lives. It complicates the fragile relationship between Laurie and Lucy. The father-daughter seems to fall apart as Lucy goes into depression and refuses to report the rape. 

The rugged Lucy, who breeds dogs, manages her farm, is single and a lesbian, reports the robbery and shooting of her dogs but hides the rape. Despite her father’s insistence to file a report, she simply says that it is her life and her choice. She will not let anybody to write her story as they intend it. The reader might wonder what makes Coetzee swiftly turn a fiercely independent Lucy to a meek position. In reality, Lucy is capable of making her own decision even as a victim. The author perhaps alludes to the slipping away of power from the whites to that of the blacks in post-apartheid South Africa. Perhaps Lucy feels that a complaint will not help her case. Instead, she enters into a deal (with Petrus) to save herself from being disposed of her land and home. Lucy thinks, “What if rape is the price one has to pay for staying on”? 

This history of apartheid and its violent past is summed up by Laurie when he consoles his daughter. “It was history speaking through them. A history of wrong. Think of it that way, if it helps. It may seem personal, but it was not. It came from the ancestors”. It is the most quoted sentence of the book. Lucy too feels that “They see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors”. Today, the personal is political is a slogan by feminists. In ‘Disgrace‘ it is vice versa too. 

The already frayed and delicate relationship between the parent and child breaks down. Laurie, whose lust had preyed on vulnerable, young women, is unable to accept that his daughter is not even interested to pursue her case legally. The event takes us back to Laurie’s trial by the university committee and his fall from grace. A trial and the repentance of a perpetrator is always a public act. The motive of a trial is not just to punish the guilty but also yield an appropriate delineation of the perpetrator’s repentance and the victim’s suffering. Laurie’s unwillingness to repent publicly and Lucy’s lack of desire to carry the stigma of victim-hood mocks the legal and socio-political situation in 1990s South Africa.

Nature, rural imagery and animals are often added as props to probably give a a peppering of cynicism and hopelessness. When Laurie volunteers in an animal shelter, run by Bev Shaw, it is evident that Shaw euthanises crippled dogs that are incapable of living life, gracefully. She puts them out of misery. Laurie, whose existence is defined by disgrace after the scandal, feels a connection to these dogs. He gives them a proper burial which comforts him. His daughter Lucy’s dignity goes into tatters after her rape. “Like a dog”, she says. 

Petrus, the black man who works as a labourer, calls himself the “dog-man” early in the book. In the aftermath of Lucy’s rape and pregnancy, she agrees to marry Petrus (or become his concubine) in exchange for staying in her farmland. Despite Petrus’ probable collusion in the crime, he transforms from “dog-man” to almost a landowner. Laurie (and Lucy) who is among the few whites left in the countryside, becomes a “dog-man” falling in grace not just from his profession but also in the new dawn of shifting power bases. Dogs are metaphors for ‘privileges of the whites’ who mostly owned them. Whites owned dogs to protect their property in a conflict-torn South Africa. So, the men who break into Lucy’s house shoot her dogs too; symbolising the destruction of ‘privilege’. David Laurie relates to the dog at a deeper level for his desires or ‘Eros’. Just like a dog would instead be shot than fixed himself or forced to ‘deny its true nature; “he would prefer to be shot than take counselling”. He would rather become “servant of the Eros”. Thus, the portrayal of dogs and their nature corresponds to the human characters in the book. It reflects their moral gaps and racial violence in the country. A white protagonist, such as Laurie asserts and justifies his moral conscience through the nature of the dogs, whose carcass he is supposed to dispose of in the incinerator. Lucy, despite her loss of strength, refuses to let go off her chosen and home but accept her condition. 

The book is pessimistic, and at the end, it leaves us confused as we make futile attempts to take sides and peer into our ethics in a brutal society. In Coetzee’s story, there is no distinction between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ because only the ‘bad’ and the ‘ugly’ rear its head. The perpetrators, and a flawed character, such as Laurie both seem humane and disparaging at the same time. The criminals are neither punished nor judged. There are no perpetrators but only, human beings who let themselves shaped by the fluctuating socio-political moralities of their times. 

 For those who dare to probe deeper into ‘Disgrace‘, it offers no answer about our nature of existence. Some of the events and behaviour resonate with ‘nihilism’. Friedrich Nietzsche once stated that “there is no objective structure to the world except what we give it”. Authors, such as Albert Camus in his work ‘The Stranger’ have drawn attention to the futility of both crimes and human moralities. 

Laurie’s world views form through the subjective meanings he gives to his often questionable actions. Coetzee does not explicitly mention the intentions behind Lucy’s decision not to report the rape. Behind all these actions, there is no meaning, similar, to the circulation of violence through history.

In her controversial work ‘banality of evil’, Hannah Arendt believed that one is capable of perpetrating violence without any meaning or motive. The lower rung Nazi officers who took part in the ‘final solution’ may not be anti-Semitic but did so without question as a duty to their fatherland. They never questioned their morality but submitted to social conventions and the political situation in the name of loyalty and duty. Arendt said that evil lacks depth; it is banal, often, perpetuated without reason. Unlike ideology that requires some depth, evil can be meaningless. Though Arendt’s proposition is debated by many others in political theory, at some level it has influenced Coetzee. 

Violence, circulates through history. In Coetzee’s book, nobody owns violence. The colonial whites, who profited from it during apartheid, were haunted by it in the aftermath. Violence does not belong to ‘majority’ or ‘minority’ or any particular class. Instead, it is connected to the conditions of human history and shapes subjectivity through time. The moralities, ethics, and social rules we value so much are, after all, based on coercion and stigmatisation. These are all subjective entities that threaten to inflict violence upon those who trample over it. Thus, a slight unhinge in power balances; political upheavals can tear down structures in second. Coetzee’s characters, in the end, accept their powerlessness and the knowledge that violence is as an unsolvable condition in their world. The book shows that human beings, irrespective of their class, race, ethnicities and even victims are very much capable of inflicting brutalities; once they believe that they would go away with impunity. However, Coetzee’s motive behind telling the tale is to elucidate the complicated relationship and uneasy proximity of the two races in his native country, South Africa. It is a fictionalised reality of South Africa in the 90s and the ethical dilemma of its ordinary citizens. The book doesn’t have a closure; the readers remain wantingfor more just like the characters. The poignancy of the story and emotional subtleties in its tone may provide hope at some point, only to rudely snatch it away in the next. 

Abhinita is a research scholar in the Dept. of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras. She has a master’s degree in Sociology from the University of Hyderabad and a diploma in Print Journalism from the Asian College of Journalism. Passionate about writing, her work has appeared in Outlook Magazine(website), The Tribune newspaper, New Asian Writing, Feminism in India (FII), Burgundy Balloon and Trouvaille Review (upcoming). 

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