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Lust, sex and rape in South Africa
Disgrace - J.M. Coetzee
Member Name: sunmeilan
Disgrace - J.M. Coetzee
Advantages: Thought-provoking, well-written
Disadvantages: Didn't like the characters, strange Byron thread
David Lurie, a Professor at a university in Cape Town, has been divorced twice and now works out his sexual feelings by paying for a prostitute once a week. Then she decides to move on and David is left bereft, until he comes across one of his students, Melanie Isaacs. Before long, he is having an affair with her, although the affair seems very one-sided, and ends abruptly when Melanie reports him for sexual harrassment. Refusing to apologise to the satisfaction of the university authorities, his employment is terminated and he is forced to re-think his life. He moves to his daughter's smallholding for a while, where she grows vegetables and flowers and looks after dogs. Nevertheless, he is aware that their relationship is strained, and, after an event that leaves both of them appreciating that South Africa is undergoing a momentous change, it is time to decide whether to move on or stay.
The book is set in 1990s South Africa, after Apartheid, and, although the emphasis initially seems to be on the characters, it is clear they are just a device to represent the change in South Africa during that time. David seems to have experienced little change in Cape Town, although there is a suggestion that the prostitute he was sleeping with moved on because of a sudden improvement in her lifestyle, presumably due to the end of Apartheid. However, when he moves in with his daughter, the social changes are very obvious. A man that Lucy Lurie employed to look after the dogs builds a smallholding on what used to be Lucy's land, and the change of power is slowly shifting in his favour. This change is further emphasized when two men and a boy, all black, arrive at Lucy's smallholding, raping and pillaging their way through the house, and then stealing David's car.
The book caused quite a stir when it was published in 1999. For a start, it won the Booker Prize in 1999 and has since been praised by many literary critics. Secondly, it received a critical reception, particularly in South Africa, for being racist and deliberately evading the real situation in South Africa. The racist element comes about because the three intruders were all black and there seems to be a suggestion that the social change as a result of the end of Apartheid are not welcomed by David Lurie, although his daughter is a lot more accepting. However, Coetzee uses symbolism to potentially suggest that this is not the case. Firstly, although he refuses to apologize properly to the university officials, he does later apologize to Melanie's family, which could be construed as an apology for his race, or at least shows that he is moving on. Then at the end of the book, he lets go of something that could represent letting go of his philandering ways and the old society. I suspect different people will see different things in the book, but that is my take.
The fact that the characters aren't the most important part of the book was a blessing for me, because I wasn't keen on any of them. David comes across as obsessed by sex, treating women as objects, not people, and behaving obtusely when he is accused of sexual harrassment. His relationship with his daughter, Lucy, is strained, apparently because he hasn't put a great deal of effort into it, despite the fact that Lucy left her mother in Holland to be with her father in South Africa. And he seems particularly keen to force his own ideals in life onto his daughter. Coetzee has obviously done a good job of building up his character - it is hard to really dislike a literary figure you don't know much about - nevertheless, it did make it hard to feel sorry for what happened to him.
Lucy, although I did feel some sympathy for her, was also hard to really like. Her reasons for staying on the smallholding after the departure of her lover seemed flimsy and very hard to understand. She seems to be content to let her smallholding be taken over without attempting to argue and her refusal to report her rape because of the repercussions, while refusing to leave and start again somewhere else was confusing. She appears to be content to stay where she is, slowly growing old and fat, without seeing if life could offer her something else in another location. She may have had her reasons, but they weren't really explained in the book and I was left feeling frustrated by her lack of action. Again though, the fact that I found her behaviour odd shows that Coetzee did a good job of bringing her character to life. It's just that I would have preferred to understand her as well.
I've previously read Slow Man by J M Coetzee, and was surprised at how easy it was to read. If anything, this is even easier. From the content, I've probably given the impression that the book is hard-going - that actually couldn't be further from the truth. It is written in the present tense, which is not a style that I usually like, but it worked well here, because the story was being told as I read it, making it somehow easier to picture. The language flows beautifully and although it is well-written, it isn't full of long words - just exactly what is needed to make the author's meaning clear. The book is only just over 200 pages in all, and the chapters are short, so I found myself reading a quarter of the book at a time.
The one thing that I really didn't like about the story was the inclusion, mainly towards the end, of the descriptions of an opera that David is writing about Byron and one of his lovers - Teresa Guiciolli. Focussing on Teresa, it shows how she has been left in the lurch by Byron, in the same way he did his child. There's obviously supposed to be a point to this inclusion - perhaps it's representing the fact that David knows he's a complete pillock for having treated women and his daughter so badly for so long. However, I just didn't think it was needed, and it made a story which was otherwise very straightforward, even with the symbolism threaded through, seem unnecessarily pretentious. Then again, perhaps I am just not intelligent enough to understand the link.
There is a certain amount of violence throughout the book, although much of it is glossed over rather than described in detail. First of all, is David's sexual activity with Melanie, which comes across as more akin to rape than a loving coupling. Lucy's rape, however, which was clearly horrific, is hardly described at all - we are left to picture what must have happened through David's imaginings. The other thing that is upsetting is that the slaughter of dogs is constantly brought up. Lucy's dogs were all killed by the intruders, then David helps a woman put down a number of dogs who don't have homes. Their deaths are described as quick and peaceful, but for any animal lover, it can be rather hard to read.
Once again, I was pleasantly surprised by this author. When I see that a book has won a Booker Prize, I often expect it to be a trial to read, but this one was very far from that. The story was very thought-provoking and was more than just a description of the characters and how they interacted, but, with the exception of the Byron bits, it wasn't at all pretentious. Best of all, Coetzee writes with a much appreciated brevity. He says what he needs to and no more, without it seeming abrupt. That is a great talent (and a blessing when it comes to the dog slaughters). This book does little to promote South Africa as a tourist attraction, but it is still a worthwhile read. Recommended.
The book is available from play.com for £4.69. Published by Secker & Warburg, it has 220 pages. ISBN-10: 0099289520
Summary: A thought-provoking read from a master author