From the author of Waiting for the Barbarians and the Booker-Prize-winning Life & Times of Michael K, a dazzling new novel—his first in five years
Disgrace—set in post-apartheid Cape Town and on a remote farm in the Eastern Cape—is deft, lean, quiet, and brutal. A heartbreaking novel about a man and his daughter, Disgrace is a portrait of the new South Africa that is ultimately about grace and love.
At fifty-two Professor David Lurie is divorced, filled with desire but lacking in passion. An affair with one of his students leaves him jobless and friendless. Except for his daughter, Lucy, who works her smallholding with her neighbor, Petrus, an African farmer now on the way to a modest prosperity. David’s attempts to relate to Lucy, and to a society with new racial complexities, are disrupted by an afternoon of violence that changes him and his daughter in ways he could never have foreseen. In this wry, visceral, yet strangely tender novel, Coetzee once again tells “truths [that] cut to the bone.” (The New York Times Book Review)
David Lurie is hardly the hero of his own life, or anyone else’s. At 52, the protagonist of Disgrace is at the end of his professional and romantic game, and seems to be deliberately courting disaster. Long a professor of modern languages at Cape Town University College, he has recently been relegated to adjunct professor of communications at the same institution, now pointedly renamed Cape Technical University:
Although he devotes hours of each day to his new discipline, he finds its first premise, as enunciated in the Communications 101 handbook, preposterous: “Human society has created language in order that we may communicate our thoughts, feelings and intentions to each other.” His own opinion, which he does not air, is that the origins of speech lie in song, and the origins of song in the need to fill out with sound the overlarge and rather empty human soul.
Twice married and twice divorced, his magnetic looks on the wane, David rather cruelly seduces one of his students, and his conduct unbecoming is soon uncovered. In his eighth novel, J.M. Coetzee might have been content to write a searching academic satire. But in Disgrace he is intent on much more, and his art is as uncompromising as his main character, though infinitely more complex. Refusing to play the public-repentance game, David gets himself fired—a final gesture of contempt. Now, he thinks, he will write something on Byron’s last years. Not empty, unread criticism, “prose measured by the yard,” but a libretto. To do so, he heads for the Eastern Cape and his daughter’s farm. In her mid-20s, Lucy has turned her back on city sophistications: with five hectares, she makes her living by growing flowers and produce and boarding dogs. “Nothing,” David thinks, “could be more simple.” But nothing, in fact, is more complicated—or, in the new South Africa, more dangerous. Far from being the refuge he has sought, little is safe in Salem. Just as David has settled into his temporary role as farmworker and unenthusiastic animal-shelter volunteer, he and Lucy are attacked by three black men. Unable to protect his daughter, David’s disgrace is complete. Hers, however, is far worse.
There is much more to be explored in Coetzee’s painful novel, and few consolations. It would be easy to pick up on his title and view Disgrace as a complicated working-out of personal and political shame and responsibility. But the author is concerned with his country’s history, brutalities, and betrayals. Coetzee is also intent on what measure of soul and rights we allow animals. After the attack, David takes his role at the shelter more seriously, at last achieving an unlikely home and some measure of love. In Coetzee’s recent Princeton lectures, The Lives of Animals, an aging novelist tells her audience that the question that occupies all lab and zoo creatures is, “Where is home, and how do I get there?” David, though still all-powerful compared to those he helps dispose of, is equally trapped, equally lost.
Disgrace is almost willfully plain. Yet it possesses its own lean, heartbreaking lyricism, most of all in its descriptions of unwanted animals. At the start of the novel, David tells his student that poetry either speaks instantly to the reader—”a flash of revelation and a flash of response”—or not at all. Coetzee’s book speaks differently, its layers and sadnesses endlessly unfolding. —Kerry Fried