Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (1999) 220 p.

I sometimes divide my TBR pile into books that I want to read and books that I feel obligated to read, and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace – as both a Booker prize winner, and a contender for the Best of the Bookers, and the most famous novel of a Nobel Prize winner – would certainly fit into that category. The word that comes to mind is “inaccessible.” Fortunately, Disgrace turned out to be not only an easily readable book, but a deeply rich and literary one.

David Lurie, a protagonist simultaneously unlikeable and identifiable, teaches literature at a university in Cape Town. After an impulsive and unrepentant affair with a young female student, he is sent on what might be politely described as “administrative leave,” exiled to his daughter’s small farm. I already knew this was the set-up of the novel, but still found those early chapters entertaining, and was pleasantly surprised when the novel expanded into unexpected dimensions.

As an Australian – a Western Australian, for that matter – one has a certain perception of South Africa, and South Africa for white people. (90% of the new students introduced to class during my entire time at high school were white South African immigrants.) I naturally went into Disgrace assuming that it would have something to do with the state of post-apartheid South Africa and the plight of white South Africans, and then chastised myself for pigeonholing it as such. The white South African community is huge, after all, and must contain a relatively normal society and a multitude of stories, and assuming a novel written by a white South African author in the late 90s must be about race relations is like assuming that a novel written by an Australian author must be about the Outback.

I was wrong. Disgrace is very much a novel about South Africa as a nation, pivoting around an act of violence at the novel’s centre (which I won’t detail) which makes David’s affair with a student seem like an utterly pointless and irrelevant matter. The beauty of it is that it treats the event both as a symptom of a national issue, and as a personal, individual ordeal. One can be quite left-wing – as I myself am, as David’s daughter is, as David himself is more moderately implied to be – and believe that Africa is and was an African land, and that blacks are perfectly entitled to be angry after many years of oppression. (Australia, after all, has a very similar situation with crime and vengeance at the hands of our original inhabitants, and the only difference is that the weight of numbers favours whites.) But politics makes no difference in the heat of the moment. Violence is violence, and it’s a disgusting and horrific thing for whomever it is visited upon, no matter what the context.

“I don’t agree. I don’t agree with what you are doing. Do you think that by meekly accepting what happened to you, you can set yourself apart from farmers like Ettinger? Do you think what happened was an exam: if you come through, you get a diploma and safe conduct into the future, or a sign to paint on the door-lintel that will make plagues pass you by? That is not how vengeance works, Lucy. Vengeance is like a fire. The more it devours, the hungrier it gets.”

Yet the consequences of David’s affair are revisited towards the end of the novel, as he returns to Cape Town. I thought it would be washed away, but it’s an integral part of his life, no matter what may have happened on the farm. Although it’s only 220 pages long, Disgrace is a deceptively complex book, containing divers themes, from white South Africa to women’s rights to animal rights’ to the condition of growing old, and it ties them all together as part of a deeper narrative, making them more than the sum of their parts.

Certainly, Disgrace is a depressing novel. There’s one scene, literally in the last few pages, where David has to make a decision, which would have been thematically appropriate either way, but which would have been the difference between making it an optimistic or a pessimistic novel, and Coetzee chooses the latter. It reminded me of The White Tiger, a fellow Booker Prize winner, in that I can safely say that it’s a deep and outstanding novel which genuinely moved me, but one which I will never read again, because I did not enjoy living inside it. That’s not an insult. The world is a dark place. J.M. Coetzee is a novelist.

Disgrace is doubtless one of the best of the Booker Prize winners, a rich and meditative novel that I found both compelling and easy to read. It’s a mark in Coetzee’s favour to be capable of such pure literature without rendering his prose tediously esoteric, and I’ll definitely be reading more of his works.

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