Disgrace

I seem to be inadvertently reading only Booker winners, like Disgrace, which I borrowed from my friend and started reading during my travel in Vietnam. I had not heard of the author J.M. Coetzee and did not know that he had won a Nobel for Literature! The book deals with the disgrace of a man and the daughter he loves very much, set in post-Apartheid South Africa.

David Lurie is an old white man, a professor of English poetry and working on a book on Lord Byron. He has been divorced twice and is casual with satiating his sexual desires. He is thrown out of his university on charges of sexual harassment of one of his students who had consensual sex with him. Disgraced like this, he leaves town to live with his daughter Lucy who runs a dog kennel alone on a remote farm. David is a man of arrogance and ego, but he adjusts to the rural life helping Lucy and her friends with their dogs. But even his daughter’s idyllic life falls apart when some locals rape her and set him on fire. Father and daughter are left to workout their relationship and find their place in the changing racial landscape of Africa.

This is a tragic book where slowly, subtly and surely everyone’s life goes to hell. Coetzee’s prose is simple and interesting and kept me engaged even though I knew that the characters were in for a world of pain. Coetzee downplays the color of his characters, but most of their troubles stem from they being white in a post-Apartheid South Africa, a place where the natives seem to want payback for the misery they endured in the past. The lives of the characters are not settled even when the book ends. A lot of stuff in the book is left to the interpretation of the reader. For example, I am pretty sure the limping dog which David agrees to kill in the end is surely a metaphor for his own ego. If you have read this book, please do share your interpretations.

At 219 pages, this is a breezy read. A movie based on this book is now in the works. The Observer calls this the best novel of the last 25 years! I would not agree with that, but this is one haunting tale.

Related: After The Fall, NYTimes review of the book.

An excerpt:

(David and Lucy are discussing David’s fall from grace after his affair with a student.)

‘When you were small, when we were still living in Kenilworth, the people next door had a dog, a golden retriever. I don’t know whether you remember.’

‘Dimly.’

‘It was a male. Whenever there was a bitch in the vicinity it would get excited and unmanageable, and with Pavlovian regularity the owners would beat it. This went on until the poor dog didn’t know what to do. At the smell of a bitch it would chase around the garden with its ears flat and its tail between its legs, whining, trying to hide.’

He pauses. ‘I don’t see the point,’ says Lucy. And indeed, what is the point?

‘There was something so ignoble in the spectacle that I despaired. One can punish a dog, it seems to me, for an offence like chewing a slipper. A dog will accept the justice of that: a beating for a 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 Kenilworth 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 that point it would have been better to shoot it.’

‘Or to have it fixed.’

‘Perhaps. But at the deepest level I think it might have preferred being shot. It might have preferred that to the options it was offered: on the one hand, to deny its nature, on the other, to spend the rest of its days padding about the living-room, sighing and sniffing the cat and getting portly.’

‘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.’

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