Nov 27, 2011

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (Winner of the Man Booker Prize for 1999): Book Review

UK Edition Cover
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee is a story of the relationship between man and history. Set in post-apartheid South Africa, it explores how the forces of larger historical change often translate perversely, at times antithetically, in the lives of particular individuals. Also, through the first half, the book dwells on the state of mind of an individual, who has been thrust upon with a pervasive sense of obsolescence in his personal and professional life by sociopolitical and personal events.  

The protagonist of the story is the somewhat inscrutable David Lurie, a professor of Communication at a South African university who perfunctorily undergoes the ritual motions of teaching to a generation of students disinterested in his subject – Romantic Literature (the alien character of classical European studies in the African context is the subtext). He is twice divorced, has no intimate personal relationships and is sufficiently aware of his status as a reject of the changed circumstances of his life (personal and national life). He has an essentially pessimistic view of the corrigibility of man beyond a certain age and he persistently questions, both in soliloquy and through his conduct, the nature and effect of the Repression of instinctual desires, upon which the moral foundation of civilized society rests.

For the better part of the first half, the narrative revolves around an affair that David has with one of his students Melanie - an affair that is against the rules of his profession and, as he would come to deeply resent, against the rules of his society too.  Through this episode Coetzee masterfully sketches the psychological dynamics of coping with dilemma.  The author weighs the ‘rights of desire’ against the ‘rules of society’ in a personal and historical context and  distills out of it a poignant portrayal - that of a man who unapologetically makes the wrong choice, even while being fully mindful of the wrongness and its inescapable consequences, and yet finds a measure of happiness, a moment of self-affirmation in that aberration, in that act of disgrace.

The latter half of the narrative revolves around the tumultuous time David spends with his daughter Lucy at her smallholding in rural South Africa. It is here that full extent of the socio-historical mosaic embodied in this story unfolds itself to the reader as the author depicts the aftermath of a violent hate-crime that sees Lucy raped and David physically assaulted.

In this part of the narrative Lucy and David exemplify two distinct responses to the fact of a violent upheaval in ones’ personal universe. Whereas David is agitated, angry, morally enraged and wishes for justice for his daughter (and perhaps for some degree of redemption for his own past (and present?) disgrace), Lucy is resigned, passive and accommodative of what she construes as the radically altered reality of the new South Africa, which manifested brutally in her life. A draining loss of intimacy and affinity follows between David and Lucy as the inherent contradiction between their worldviews is progressively drawn forth by David’s repeated attempts to persuade Lucy to move against her violators.

J.M. Coetzee
Lucy’s choices, to my mind at least, seemed to indicate that she, as a white South African woman had internalized the guilt for the history of South Africa and was indulging in what can only be describes as self-flagellation or self-denial. It seemed to her that, in the story of her own life at least, she would have undone the wrongs of history.

David’s character is richly developed and completely constructed in the final portion of the narrative. The ever-changing conceptions in his mind of ‘Byron in Italy’, a chamber opera that he had been working on throughout the story, continuously and dramatically exteriorize his inner conflicts and emotions amidst the chaos of a disintegrating life. 

The events in his relationship with others – notably, an escort who went by the name Soraya, a middle aged woman called Bev Shaw, his ex-wife Rosalind and a lame dog with no name - help us understand his condition in its full personal, social and psychological extent.

Disgrace is a mature book from one of the greatest English language writers of the current generation.  It is a fine work of literature that contemplates many contemporary political, historical and personal themes that permeate our lives. Even while meditating on the abstract universals Coetzee does not lose sight of the quintessentially human particulars that enable a story to tap into the deepest empathetic reserve of the reader.


Sukhi said...

Fair analysis of the characters and context!

Siddharth Kaushal said...

Thank you Sukhi... glad you liked it.

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