Re-reading JM Coetzee’s Disgrace
Disgrace won the 1999 Booker Prize and I probably read it that year, perhaps in 2000, I don’t remember. It would certainly be among the top three novels to win that prize in the last decade.
He has not taken to Bev Shaw, a dumpy, bustling little woman with black freckles, close-cropped, wiry hair, and no neck. He does not like women who make no effort to be attractive. It is a resistance he has had to Lucy’s friends before. Nothing to be proud of; a prejudice that has settled in his mind, settled down. His mind has become a refuge for old thoughts, idle, indigent, with nowhere else to go. He ought to chase them out, sweep the premises clean. But he does not care to do so, or does not care enough.
Exiled to an isolated farm after being sacked from his professorial post at the University of Capetown, David Lurie, middle-aged and twice divorced, moves in with his daughter, Lucy. But shortly after his arrival the isolated farm is raided by three men who rape his daughter and try to burn Lurie alive. They shoot the dogs and eventually load up his car with all they can plunder from the house and make their getaway, leaving him and his daughter humiliated and in a state of extreme shock.
Political and historical forces shape our lives in a totally impersonal way. In this novel Coetzee deals with his vision of post-Apartheid South Africa embedded in the life of David Lurie and his friends and relations. We watch as Lurie is broken apart by the forces playing with his life and know that he will only find a grain of redemption when he gives up his illusions and begins to accept the reality of his situation.
David Lurie’s story is a journey mirrored by the transition of Mandela’s South Africa; the country moves from tyranny to anarchy, the man from a hazy and liberally romantic lifestyle to a hospice for unwanted dogs.
And all is rendered in a spare prose style that exactly matches the interiority of the main character.
The book won an unprecedented second Booker Prize for JM Coetzee in 1999, almost a decade after the release of Nelson Mandela and the beginning of the dismantling of Apartheid.