Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Disgrace — J.M.Coetzee — A book review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on June 28, 2008

Some books are very hard to write about. One is moved, disturbed and dulled into a pensive state by what one reads and yet one cannot place a finger on the aspects that touch and trouble the reader. J.M.Coetzee’sDisgrace” is a recent read of mine that put me through this troubling experience

It is a very complex book that poses a variety of ethical questions that arise out of peoples choices, beliefs, stances and behaviour and also the consequences of sticking to these in an uncompromising way. In a way, a compromise itself can turn out to be an ethical question i.e. should one compromise and move to a middle path or stick to what one believes irrespective of the consequences? Convenience vs conviction and the subsequent paths that await individuals — that to me appeared to be the central theme of this moving book by Coetzee

Set in South Africa “Disgrace” is the story of David Lurie and his daughter Lucy. David is a professor of languages in Cape Town University and gets involved with one his students and gets expelled from the University. The expelling itself can have serious consequences both from a career and financial perspectives, yet, David refuses to plead guilty, resulting in loss of his job and a harrowing journey of struggle and hardships. On the other hand Lurie lives on a farm making do with the produce from the land. In many ways it is a hard life that is not typical of whites in South Africa. A few days after his relocation to his daughters farm, David and Lurie are subject to a violent attack by three blacks and Lurie is brutally raped. The subsequent events bring the positions of each into a very sharp contrast.

Prior to the incident Lucie tries her best to understand David’s motives of why he does not plead guilty at the university, get a pardon and get on with his life. It is in portraying these moral positions that Coetzee comes up with his best. Consider the following no holds barred conversation between  daughter and father on this issue:

“……That’s not true. Even if you are what you say, a moral dinosaur, there is a curiosity to hear the dinosaur speak. I for one am curious. What is your case? Let us hear it

My case rests on the rights of desire’ he says. ‘On the god who makes even small birds quiver’……. one can punish a dog , it seems to me, for an offence like chewing slipper. A dog will accept the justice of that: a beating for chewing. But desire is another story. No animal will accept the justice of being punished for following its instincts

So males must be allowed to follow their instincts unchecked? Is that the moral?

No that is not the moral. What was ignoble about the .. spectacle was that the poor dog had begun to hate its own nature. It no longer needed to be beaten. It was ready to punish itself. At this point it would have been better to shoot it…

Have you always felt this way, David?

No, not always. Sometimes I have felt just the opposite.That desire is a burden we could well do without”

(It is my opinion that in the East the subject of desire has received an extensive empirical observation and multiple methods have been expressed either through philosophical expositions or through religion to control desire. On the contrary in the West the emphasis on controlling desire, it appears, has not received the kind of treatment that it derserved)

Lucy has a help on her farm in the form of a black called Petrus. David suspects that Petrus knows one of the three persons involved in the outrage. Gradually it turns out that that is true. David wants Lucie to let go of her smallholding and make a fresh beginning by migrating to Holland. Lucy refuses it. Lucy sees that it is a price that as a white she has to pay to live on the land where utter horrors have been committeed in the name of race. At one stage Lucy says the following:

 ‘But isn’t there another way of looking at it, David? What if…. what if that is the price that one has to pay for staying on? Perhaps that is how they look at it: perhaps that is how I should look at it too. They seem me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should be allowed to live here without paying? Perhaps that is what they tell themselves

David meets Bev Shaw a lady who runs a animal care center and builds a relationship with her. His original idea of writing a book on the later stages of Byron do not lead to any concrete results. In the meanwhile it turns out that Lucy gets pregnant and insists on staying in the farm despite the threat of continued attacks on her. David dissuades her from staying on… but Lucy is steadfast and instead takes the option of coming under the protection of Petrus in a possible arrangment of exchange of land to Petrus.. David is a completely broken man… yet a small ray of hope exists when David says: What will it entail being a grandfather? As a father he has not been much of a success, despite trying harder than most. As a grandfather he will probably score lower than average too. He lacks the virtues of the old: equanimity, kindliness, patience. But those virtues will come as other virtues go: the virtue of passion, for instance. He must have a look again at Victor Hugo, poet of grandfatherhood. There may be things to learn

It is with this sort of understanding and compromise from David’s side that the book ends

Coetzee’s displays an astonishing control on language through out the book. What I found most fascinating about the book is that the authors felicity with language is employed to build situations where the necessary room for portraying moral positions of the characters is created

Secondly, Coetzee through the book weaves gems of thoughts on various aspects which are very sublime. This I felt is only possible for writers of a very great caliber. Two of his thoughts in particular appealed to me quite a lot

I don’t think scapegoating is the best description,’ he says cautiously. ‘Scapegoating worked in practice while it still had religious power behind it. You loaded the sins of the city on to the goat’s back and drove it out, and the city was cleaned. It worked because everyone knew how to read the ritual, including the gods. Then the gods died, and all of a sudden you had to cleanse the city without divine help. Real actions were demanded instead of symbolism. The censor was born, in the Roman sense. Watchfulness became the watchword: the watchfulness of all over all. Purgation was replaced by purge

The horrors of apartheid and the futility of language to bring out the sorrow associated with it is also well described when he says
Doubtless Petrus has been through a lot, doubtless he has a story to tell. He would not mind hearing Petrus’s’ story one day. But preferable not reduced to English. More and more he is convinced that English is an unfit medium for the truth of South Africa. Stretches of English code whole sentences long have thickened, lost their articulations, their articulateness, their articulatedness. like a dinosaur expiring and settling in the mud, the language has stiffened. Pressed into the mould of English, Petrus’s story would come out arthritic, bygone

Overall, “Disgrace” is a very sad and thought provoking book. It has been a real struggle to write my impressions on this wonderfully moving book. Maybe there in lies an example of what a good book ought to be

Trivia: J.M Coetzee and Peter Carey are the only 2 writers who have won Bookers twice so far. Coetzee for Life & Times of Micheal K and Disgrace and Peter Carey for Oscar & Lucinda and True History of Kelly Gang


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