Book Review: “Disgrace” by John Maxwell Coetzee

DisgraceCoverThere are novels that remain cocooned under the robe of simplicity and yet is not a simple one. Under the veil of apparent simpleness, it weaves a story so intricate, so dark, so sinister that it cannot fail to touch the frailties and hegemonies of the world both esoteric and mundane. If I am to choose a few novels falling in this category: Disgrace will be the first one.

The novel starts with a setting of an academic environment, something not very frequent in Coetzee’s work (in fact the only other novel I can remember with academic settings is Elizabeth Costello). Aged professor David Lurie is ‘disgraced’ when found to be in violation of the university’s law of being sexually involved with a student. He loses his job, the purpose of life and moves back to his daughter Lucy’s home set in the rural landscape of post-apartheid South Africa. The hegemony of fairer skin colour and well-equipped economic station of life comes in sharp contrast with the country searing in anger of maltreatment. From here on the story could have been another tale of the central versus the marginals: like the stories Coetzee has written earlier, in Waiting for the Barbarians or Age of iron. But Coetzee refrained from flowing through another formula-fed narrative and went on to add intricacies into the heart of an already intricate tale. The idyllic life  Lucy is shattered with a violent attack that ends up ravaging and impregnating her. David’s incapability of being the saviour of his child, his future generation’s ‘purity’ is paralleled with his attempt of writing a play on the decadent life of Byron’s final years. Lucy, who was earlier hinted to be lesbian, loses the dream-like world she woven around herself: a farm life of mutual assistance beyond the private ownership of the man’s world; and yet it does not seem to the typical onslought upon the sexual minority from the point of view of the mainstream. Neither was it an attack on the single white female living on the fringe of the society almost encroaching upon the Black man’s territory. In fact, Disgrace is full of actions that are not prototype of any form we used to know. The characters are not representational; neither do they carry any sense of onus to take the story or their lives to a certain destiny. The fatelessness pervading through the entire novel reminds us of work of Fernando Pessoa or Imre Kertész.

While writing the novel, I think Coetzee was aware of the fact that David Lurie is destined to be read as the representative of white Afrikaner fast losing his power and authority and feeling emasculated. And thus Coetzee did everything in his power not to enable Lurie to fall under such pretext. Coetzee’s sincere concern over animal rights also found its way into the novel at the finality, putting both the central character and the readers into a precarious position. The more the slim novel approaches its final bell, the more evident it gets that Disgrace, almost resolutely would not be a tale that can be labelled sealed and forgotten. To paraphrase Soren Kierkegaard, when you label me, you deny me. Disgrace can neither be labelled, nor denied of its unique position in the map of twentieth century literature.

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3 responses to “Book Review: “Disgrace” by John Maxwell Coetzee

  1. Pingback: “Disgrace” by Coetzee | Random Musings

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