International Writers Magazine: Review:
Georgina Horrell, Samuel Durrant and Michael
Marais on JM Coetzees Disgrace
argues that instead of being able to tackle historical events and
their emotional implications at the same time, writers and their
readers can only come at the emotional implications indirectly.
Durrant argues then that Coetzee succeeds in using the microcosmic
story of Davids disgrace to talk about the macrocosmic story
of South Africas disgrace:
novels testify to the suffering engendered by apartheid precise by refusing
to translate that suffering into a narrative. Rather than providing
a direct historical relation of the conditions of apartheid, they instead
provide a way of relating to such a history. They teach us that the
true work of the novels consists
in the insistence of remaining
inconsolable before history'. (1, emphasis added)
The effects of Apartheid, additionally, are so varied that they cannot
be represented, and also so overwhelming that they cannot be looked
'Whereas a realistic account of apartheid would turn apartheid into
a digestible historical narrative, allowing us to mourn and then to
move on, Coetzees novels resist this process of verbalization
and relentlessly force us to confront the brute, indigestible materiality
of the suffering engendered by apartheid. Rather than banishing or exorcising
history, Coetzees narratives are themselves banished; falling
away, they leave us with the terrible, irreconcilable sight of the abused
body, stripped bare of the explanatory narratives of historical discourse'.
This recalls the rape of Lucy, the details of which is left unwitnessed
by the narrater, and thus the reader.
Marais also explores how, much to the critical condemnation, Coetzee
does not directly explore the ramifications of Apartheid. Though Coetzee
does not provide a historically true and politically potent account
of his times, Marias argues that "there is nothing vague about
the process of ethical meditation envisaged" by Coetzee (173).
Marais asks how authors are able to react to historical change while
remaining, as Coetzee does, ahistorical - and whether such an ahistorical
approach is irrelevant to a post-Apartheid South Africa. Marias answers
that Coetzee has an unlimited obligation to continue his engagement
with history. Being grounded in responsibility, his task does not end
with the end of apartheid. It has always yet to be attempted. (174)
Drawing from Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot, Marias appears to
argue that Coetzee refuses "to violate the enigmatic Other by reducing
him/her to a phenomenal object that is present and therefore representable"
(164) for it is in the bringing to light of an abstract concept that
it is destroyed.
Is the only avenue available to Coetzee then that he deliberately not
talk about what he is particularly interested in? Marias explains that
the "writers desire for the Other" what they
have chosen to focus on - has to be "transmuted into respect [-]
a form that negotiates the ambiguity of literature." (164-5) The
author must humble themselves before their object of inquiry. Marias
goes on to suggest that the author, to respect the Other, must in effect
become the Other, to be possessed: the "work can only work if the
writer generously gives himself to the Other." (170, 178-9) The
author must undergo an exile from their privileged position, and so
break "out of the circle of self-affirmation."
David and Lucy are fundamentally distanced from one another, with Davids
preference for communication conflicting with Lucys preference
for action. Because of her refusal to come out about her rape, and her
adherence to a self-enforced code of silence, Lucy is Davids other.
Yet David and Lucys argument over Lucys refusal to go to
the police arises because of her gender she and David are cut
off, she argues, because he is a man and therefore incapable of empathising
with her experience. It might be fair to say that the core of Disgrace
is that the progress of the relationship between David and his daughter,
the Self and the Other, eventuates into a truce. David accepts that
they are irreconcilably different, yet decides that he has an immense
responsibility towards her. He learns a respect for the Other.
"Disgrace," Horrell argues, "wrestles with the implications
of culpability and the consequences of violent colonization and, without
flinching, asks how white South Africans may be compelled to remember."
(25) However, the demand made of David to remember is made
with great proximity.
It is on and through the body of Luries daughter that the terms
for white South Africas future remembering are ultimately
The body becomes a tablet, a notepad for the texts,
which must be obeyed, for debts that must be paid. (25-6)
The black South Africans are, as it were, balancing out the account
sheet that is Lucy. Womens suffering becomes a currency between
men. It is on Lucy, the shared Other of both the male rapists
and David, her father, that history is also rewritten. David retreats
to the country to recuperate, and spend time with the daughter that
he describes as a throwback. She is, Horrell suggests, inscribed
"as a link to the colonial past of South Africa
a sign of
white hope" (27).
David possibly invests in her the promise of a different kind of South
Africa where Apartheid never happened, and where instead black and white
farmers work alongside one another. This white hope is rudely
shattered when the three strangers come to Lucys house, inscribing
their own vision of the new power relations in South Africa just
as David used the bodies of Soraya and Melanie to exercise his own active
Women thus become "a terrain of struggle a battleground"
(Krog 271-2), a neutral territory where men of differing races can wage
their battles on. And so, despite Davids assertion that Lucy should
not feel guilty for the sins of Apartheid, or Lucys sense that
the rapists were striking out at her, Horrell points out that the rape
was not an attack on Lucy, but a reminder to white men of their dark
Horrell stresses that the book is not a testimony to the process of
the Truth and Reconciliation Committee: "There is no tidy confession-to-redemption
sequence any more than there is a sense that if Lucy
dues demanded, all will be well." (31) Rather, Horrell argues that
the "book may be read as a text which understands that the spoken
language of repentance, the sorry exacted from men to torture
and oppression, is desperately insufficient and largely unheard"
(31) reminiscent to Durrants argument that the sacred or
the profane cannot be directly approached.
Durrant, Samuel, Bearing witness to Apartheid: J.M. Coetzees
inconsolable works of mourning. Contemporary Literature, Fall
1999 v40 i3 p430
Horrell, Georgina. JM Coetzees Disgrace: one settler, one bullet
and the new South Africa. Scrutiny 2. Vol 7, #1 (2002)
Krog, Antjie. Country of my skull. London: Vintage, 1999.
Marais, Michael. Little enough, less than little: nothing: ethics,
engagement and change in the fiction of J.M. Coetzee, Modern Fiction
Studies, 46.1. Spring 2000, pp.159-182
© Ashley Hibbert July 2008
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