The International Writers Magazine:Book Review
Coetzees 1999 novel Disgrace won the Booker Prize that year
(the second time he won it, which is the U.K. equivalent of the
Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award in the United States).
On a 1-100 scale
its a 65-70, tops. Its the type of writing that inspires
terms like solid, passable, and ok, not outstanding, great, nor memorable.
It is the sort of book that should be considered for publication after
all the masterpieces have been published that year, not held up as an
exemplar of the best that fiction has to offer. I do not know what the
rest of this Nobel Prize-wining authors output is like, but if
its anything like this book its likely to be as dull.
Coetzees sentences are straightforward, but not in that clear,
shining way that the best of a Hemingway is. There is no poetry nor
insight to his writing. His characters are marionettes involved in a
too long morality play, even though the 220 page book is a small size.
It has potential, but opts for the PC and easy way out. What is most
disturbing, I guess, is to realize that Political Correctness has wormed
its way so far over the world that no nation is immune from its intolerant
grasp. This book half-heartedly tries to attack PC, but midway through
merely gives up the ghost. Whether this was actively planned I do not
know, but it is disturbing nonetheless.
The story follows a fiftysomething professor named David Lurie, from
Cape Technical University in South Africa. The novel opens with this:
For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind,
solved the problem of sex rather well. Yet, sex, in its sundry
forms, is what the novel is about, although only on a surface way, as
it really strives to depict the changing of the guard from apartheid
era South Africa to the cruel realities of the newer, black-dominated
South Africa. Lurie is a twice divorced man who is obsessed with a prostitute
named Soraya, and after she decides she no longer wants his business,
he decided to seduce one of his students. He is, cliché alert,
a professor of Romantic Poetry. His intended bed buddy is a none too
bright, but sexy yet passionless, twenty year old coed and wannabe actress
named Melanie Isaacs, who seems to loathe him, but figures on using
him to get better grades. Here is the way they interact: All
she does is avert herself; avert her lips, avert her eyes. She lets
him lay her out on the bed and undress her: she even helps him, raising
her arms and then her hips. Little shivers of cold run through her;
as soon as she is bare, she slips under the quilted counterpane like
a mole burrowing, and turns her back on him. She plays as
many games as he does, and even has a boyfriend on the side. He makes
a stink about Luries affair with Melanie, her parents come town,
and Lurie is brought up on sexual harassment and human rights violations.
Its a very silly charge, and Coetzee attempts to portray it, yet
his scenes of the machinations by the de facto college court to extract
more than the guilty plea Lurie is eager to give, is very typical of
the books failures.
Instead of examining the perverse motives of the court, in demanding
a pound of psychic flesh from Lurie- remorse and an admission of wrongdoing,
Coetzee merely shows them as buffoons. Lurie, however, is above the
charade. The court imposes the harshest punishment, and Lurie is asked
to resign, which he does. He travels north to spend some time reconnecting
with his estranged daughter Lucy, who owns a farm and dog kennel, and
is a man-hating lesbian. However, her female lover has abandoned her.
She does trust an elderly black worker on her place, named Petrus, yet
it turns out that one night three associates of his burst into her home,
attack Lurie and set him aflame, steal much, and rape Lucy, who reacts
with an almost preternatural acceptance of her violation. Lucy decides
not to report the attack to police, only reporting the robbery- for
insurance money. She calmly tells her father the attack was not about
sex, but subjection and subjugation, and here is where the novel really
Lucy becomes an unreal figure- a mere symbol, and any reality that the
character has portrayed is now out the window. She is a ham-handed attempt
at PC rationalizing of the horrors inflicted on some innocent whites
for the brutality of the apartheid era on blacks. This is never more
evident than when she explains to her father about why she will not
report the rape: The reason is that, as far as I am concerned,
what happened to me is a purely private matter. In another time, in
another place it might be held to be a public matter. But in this place,
at this time, it is not. It is my business, mine alone.
This place being what?
This place being South Africa. This is simply
a wholly unnatural reaction to such an attack. What individual is going
to sacrifice their own personal sovereignty as payback for crimes committed
by others against others? We find out that Petrus may have orchestrated
the rape, as part of a tax collection of sorts, and that
the youngest rapist is a relative of his. He slowly starts bargaining
with Lucy for plots of her land, which she feels will fall into black
hands no matter what.
There were ample opportunities for Coetzee to portray the utter corruption
of many of the reforms the new South African government and its agencies
wrought, but by de facto stating that innocent whites merely have to
take it, to understand black oppression, is not only a silly
and noxious political sentiment, but utterly uncompelling dramatically.
Eventually, Lurie returns to his home in Cape Town, as his daughters
unrealistic motives confound him. When he does, even though hes
only been gone a few months, he finds his home totally stripped. He
does not even bother to report it, for as he did when he dealt with
the police who investigated his car, which was stolen during Lucys
rape, he knows nothing will be done. With no place to turn, he gets
a job with one of Lucys friends, Bev, at an Animal Humane Society,
euthanizing stray dogs, then disposing of their remains. She is an unattractive
woman, but eager to be his lover. He beds her, then wonders to himself:
Let me not forget this day, he tells himself, lying beside her when
they are spent. After the sweet young flesh of Melanie Isaacs, this
is what I have come to. This is what I will have to get used to, this
and even less. Lucy, meanwhile, refuses to go to Holland, to
stay with her mother, and tells her father she is pregnant from the
rape, and does not believe in abortion. By this juncture, Lucy is not
even a real person in the narrative, but a symbol of the hybridized,
or bastardized new South Africa, but its a clunky metaphor. Lurie
resigns himself to failure- in life, in art (he will never finish the
libretto of an opera hes working on- libretti being the archetypal
refuge of bad, but pretentious, writers), in love, and in his career.
Even his attempt to apologize to Melanies parents goes awry, as
her father is too smart for him, and twists him upon his own hypocrisy,
after he is caught by the boyfriend sneaking in to see Melanie in a
play. The book ends, however, with one of the most ridiculous instances
of symbolism, with Lurie bringing a mutt to be euthanized, symbolic
of both the new South Africa, and his white daughter, pregnant by a
black rapist, who has already accepted her fatalistic position as a
dog before history. Could Coetzee have been any more explicit
and condescending? It ends:
The dog wags its crippled rear, sniffs his face, licks his
cheeks, his lips, his ears. He does nothing to stop it. Come.
Bearing him in his arms like a lamb, he re-enters the surgery. I
thought you would give him another week, says Bev Shaw. Are
you giving him up?
Yes, I am giving him up.
Please, shudder along with me. I can never understand how artists can
think so little of their audiences that they proffer such crap. The
whole of the novel is so one dimensional. Not once does Coetzee even
attempt to dig under the characters skins. The characters, from
Luries acceptance of his kangaroo court fate, to Lucys acceptance
of rape, are not really characters, but servants to a screed of white
forgiveness laid bare. No wonder it won prizes- it certainly was not
for the literary merit. It is typical of the Left Wing mentality that
flays Lurie for abusing the human rights of a willing bed
partner who uses him to get good grades, yet dismisses gang rape of
an innocent woman for presumed prior crimes she never committed. This
is what passes for great literature these days, when it really is only
a passable first draft for a novel, and one that reads like it was written
more by a twenty year old, than a man Coetzees age. I would be
hard pressed to recall a work that had a better premise and worse follow
through than this, and its the premise, itself, that is the books
strongest suit. Life Of Pi, by Yann Martel, is a worse book,
but it also has a less realistic premise. That something that would
seem such a slam dunk idea could be so misused is a shame. Even worse
is lauding such a failure. Aint prizes wonderful?
© Dan Schnieder March 2006
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