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J.M. Coetzee

Theo Geyser, a pastor in Stellenbosch, recommended that I read J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace. It tells a story of South Africa, as one critic put it, a story that “brutal tyranny has been replaced by brutal anarchy.” I don’t know how to describe this disturbing novel, a novel that seared images into me the way Flannery O’Connor has done. The central character, David Lurie, seems unredeemable but there are moments — just moments — of hope sprinkled into the last half of the book.
Anyone out there a reader of Coetzee? Of this novel? Any thoughts?
Again, I won’t betray the plot, but the absence of hope that we find in Cry, the Beloved Country, the almost apocalyptic shift in times from Alan Paton’s days to J.M. Coetzee’s, and the fuller, bolder, balder presence of dark crime created for me a sense of powerlessness and a grim acceptance of harsh realities. The violence against his daughter Lucy is unbelievably accepted into fatalism, a stance that for me betrayed any sense of justice and morality.
The themes of powerlessness and overt humiliation animate the plot, but what the story does is probe and probe into human nature. What is it, he seems to be asking, that makes us go on? What is it that creates the story we now experience? What can we do about it? Should we?
The two locations of the story, one in Cape Town at a technical college, and the other at a farm on the Eastern Cape, move (in themes) from traditional hierarchy to multi-dimensional chaos. In the former, he is professor; in the latter, he is father with his grown, independent daughter Lucy. And one who learns to discover himself and begins to learn to love by caring for dying dogs. And the irony Coetzee tosses into our eyes with his magnetic, smooth prose as he describes his ridiculous affair at the college and the violence against his daughter in the Eastern Cape force constant thinking and pondering. When Lurie longs for justice for his daughter, he meets a new world — a world playing by different rules. Again, the fatalism disturbed me and seemingly caricaturizes South Africans.
The themes are dark; the realities of that world are dark. It takes a novel like this to explore it.

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RC Gale

posted April 29, 2008 at 1:02 am

I got the same visceral, hopeless feeling reading Disgrace that I did watching the movie The Fountain. Coetzee is an incredible writer and the narrative is so compelling. The fatalism was heartbreaking.

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D C Cramer

posted April 29, 2008 at 8:38 am

I read Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, also set in South Africa during civil war and also a mixture despair with sprinkles of hope. I also just picked up his Elizabeth Costello on recommendation from other Coetzee readers. EC is a novel about an aging writer, following her through a series of lectures and speeches on a range of topics as she ends her writing career. Looking forward to giving it a read, and perhaps I’ll report on how it turns out.

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posted April 29, 2008 at 10:34 am

“Waiting for the Barbarians” is a powerful read as well. I am slowly working through Elizabeth Costello right now. Coetzee is a tough read, but one that I find worth the effort.
Check out Shusaku Endo’s “Silence” if you want a powerful reading experience.

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K Hargaden

posted April 29, 2008 at 4:17 pm

It’s a very troubling book, but in a good way! The collapse into hopelessness is excruciating but it does speak to a creeping sense of nihilism that anecdotally I do think afflicts upper class white South Africans. Apartheid is dead and the Rainbow Republic is not a utopia. “Now what?” they ask. Whether or not they have any real political power, the decline in their influence since 1994 means they *feel* powerless.
As a Christian I also think they feel guilty but if secular they often lack a vocabulary to articulate that helpfully (which feeds into the plot developments in the novel). Again, purely on anecdotal grounds, white Christians often lack distance from their own sub-culture to be able to live out full repentance for their passivity in previous decades.
As an Irishman, I anticipate similarly hopeless tales (if less dark) to come out of the Northern Irish peace process as literature catches up with society…

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posted April 30, 2008 at 3:20 am

As an American living in Cape Town and working across several countries in the region, I’ve tried to devour as much African writing in general and South African writing in particular as possible. Disgrace is a masterpiece of complete brokenness and tiny shards of redemption. Good choice. The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut follows in the same sort of tradition, but is more ambitious and falls short literarily. Still worth a read.
If you want your mind to be warped and haunted and screaming over the complexity that is South Africa and one’s identity in it, then read My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Malan. You’ll not understand a single thing about South Africa after reading this book, and that is the highest praise I can give it.

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Peter Wilkinson

posted May 1, 2008 at 9:22 am

I have read this book over and over, many times – possibly more than any other book (maybe apart from Mukiwa/Peter Godwin – a book about Rhodesia/Zimbabwe), which is why I was drawn to this post, through completely random means. I have pondered endlessly the meaning of the title of Coetzee’s book.
A westerner will, in an uncomfortable way, both identify with and react against David Lurie, his sense of moral and racial autonomy, his, yes, ludicrous affairs, his increasing irrelevance as a profesor specialising in English Romantic literature at the technical college, his searing humiliation in the theatre auditorium, his comic and self-destructive defiance of the politically correct morality committee of the college in Cape Town.
The boook is a story of Lurie’s decline and fall – in which the wreckage of his daughter’s life provides a glimpse of a barren future towards which he, and maybe all white South Africans are heading.
A westerner may also identify with the sense of alien menace of the African world with its mystifyingly different attitudes, its sense of communal values, and the power trickling away from the one community (the white) towards the other (the black).
Both worlds mirror each other in the book, in their presentation of different forms of sexual abuse – the one, balancing ‘professional’ provision of sexual services with an ‘abusive’ yet consensual relationship between student and teacher, the other a rape, but both heavily laden with overtones of the expression of power.
In one world, there is aching loneliness; in the other, there is a strange web of motives imperfectly understood by main character and reader alike.
Yet the story eludes pat simplifications such as these. There is a humanity trying to express itself, and yet constantly thwarted. In the end, caring for maltreated and stray animals in some out of the way part of the country, alone, away from contact with one’s kind, is the bleak metaphor for decline and decay for white South Africans. On the other hand, the prospects for the up and coming black communities are given no cause for hope either.
This is a vision of Africa which is both farcical and painful, but with no glimmer of redemption.
Coetzee is not a prolific writer, and seems to have veered away from the novel as a literary form. The themes and issues on which he touches seem to be almost too dark for him to find an adequate outlet, as a writer.

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