Thursday, October 11, 2007

Books: Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee

For all his literary prizes, which I tend to ignore, it took an insistent recommendation from a well-trusted friend for me to add this book to my reading list. I did it despite my desire not to, because based on her first recommendation, I read his Elizabeth Costello last year, and found it lengthy despite its brevity; aged, solipsistic, and whiny. As it turns out, Disgrace is similarly aged and solipsistic, but perhaps because its protagonist is a man, it tends toward the comfort of the curmudgeonly rather than the shrill pitch of the matronly. My misogyny aside, it also has a better plot, more serious moral issues, and some sex, which always helps.

Coetzee's writing is simple, direct, and intelligent; his story-telling is so limpid that it reads less like a story than an account from the mouth of your buddy the protagonist David Lurie, over dinner and a glass of wine. He's had a rough time. Twice divorced, he's been satisfying his sexual needs by visiting an escort once a week; after he becomes a bit over attached, though, she refuses to see him any longer, and in a somewhat random fit of loneliness and excitement, he takes up with one of his students (he is a professor of English Literature, renamed Communications by the University and/or the State). Things go poorly, and after he refuses to apologize in front of an inquiry board comprised of his colleagues, he loses his job; with nowhere else to go, he packs some things for a long visit with his adult daughter on her semi-rural farm.

Lucy is something of an anachronism and then some. She moved to the farm when it was a hippy commune, but when all the hippies left, she stayed behind with her (older, homely) lesbian lover, and continued to grow vegetables and flowers to sell at the market. She hired an African man to help her, and he moved his family into the barn. Oh, by the way, we are in post-apartheid South Africa; that's important. Anyway, it's dangerous out in the country; while David is struggling to reconnect with his daughter, with himself, and with a rural way of life, he is gravely interrupted one afternoon when three young African men duplicitously gain entrance into Lucy's house, beat the professor and lock him in the bathroom, repeatedly rape Lucy, and then steal everything of value, including David's car. Before they leave, they pour a bottle of alcohol over his body and light him on fire. He survives with mostly second degree burns. Lucy survives too, but she seems only a shell of herself, withered inside, and, we eventually find out, becomes pregnant, refusing to expel the fetus.

David now struggles even more to connect with her, as their values clash so strongly (Lucy refuses to report the rape to the police, refuses to prosecute one of the offenders when given the chance, and had refused to take medication to prevent pregnancy). This clash is exacerbated after a discussion between David and Lucy's African farmhand, who now offers to marry her for protection. David finds the idea ludicrous, and even suspects that the man had a hand in the attack (he was, after all, conveniently not present that day, and, furthermore, seems to be related to one of the attackers), and wants Lucy to leave Africa. Lucy refuses to leave the farm, and is seriously considering the marriage, despite her (lack of) feeling for men, and despite the fact that this man already has two wives. David cannot comprehend her willingness to subjugate herself; Lucy seems to feel as though she is paying some debt for apartheid.

David goes back to his house in Cape Town to find his home broken into, everything of value stolen, and the withered carcass of a pigeon in his sink. He has, since his expulsion, developed an ability to connect (empathize?) with animals that are dead or dying that he heretofore lacked; dare we call it a creeping spirituality? If so, it somehow manages to evade offending me.

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