Inside JM Coetzee’s labyrinth

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on September 13, 2019

Taking up space: In post-apartheid South Africa in the ’90s, farmlands owned by white people began to be taken over by black activists who saw it as a legitimate redistribution of resources   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

In its 20th year, a look back at the Booker-winning novel Disgrace, which delves into racial tensions, sexual politics and the difficulty of judgement

The red flags have been visible for a while, but there really is no scope for doubt now. Thanks to a global wave of anti-intellectualism, we are witnessing an instinctive distrust of people who read. Reading for pleasure, reading for work or, lord forbid, reading for a PhD thesis: These are all suspicious activities now under a newfangled McCarthyism, as the practice of making treason accusations with zero evidence came to be known after the late US Senator Joseph McCarthy made a string of accusations in the 1950s, claiming that Hollywood in particular was riddled with Soviet spies. An erroneous news report from last week is a case in point. According to this, Bombay High Court Justice Sarang Kotwal had asked the activist Vernon Gonsalves about a copy of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace that the latter had at home. “Why do you have a book about a war in a different country?” the judge was supposed to have asked.

As it turns out, Justice Kotwal had never said this and, besides, the book in question was a collection of essays called War and Peace in Junglemahal: People, State and Maoists (2014). So, why did so many people believe the incorrect version of events? Because it seemed entirely plausible in the aforementioned anti-intellectual atmosphere — that’s how far we’ve come from common sense.

The constant critic

One wonders how a novel like JM Coetzee’s Disgrace would have fared in the Twitter-Trump era. Released in 1999, Disgrace earned its author his second Man Booker that year. He first won the Booker in 1983 for Life and Times of Michael K. In 2003, Coetzee (currently an Australian citizen, but born and raised in South Africa) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Disgrace follows a tumultuous phase in the life of David Lurie, a white, ageing professor of Communications in Cape Town, South Africa. Lurie’s grown-up, lesbian daughter Lucy is raped, apparently on the orders of her black neighbour and former assistant, Petrus. Much before all of this happens, however, the professor himself is fired by his college for sleeping with a student. In a telling passage, Lurie feels that the encounter with the student was “not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core”.

Perhaps more than any other contemporary writer, Coetzee’s works bring to mind the classic example used to explain what an oxymoron is: ‘The kind cruelty of the surgeon’s knife’. Whether it’s the apocalyptic road trip at the heart of The Life and Times of Michael K (1983), the postmodern horrors of Foe (1986), or the allegorical yet laser-guided critique of racism that Age of Iron (1990) provides, Coetzee can never be truly cruel because he’s constantly cruel — an equal opportunity slayer of sentimentality. It’s not every day that one can use the word ‘remorseless’ for an artist unironically.

Disgrace; JM Coetzee; Vintage; Fiction; ₹399


Disgrace is a novel that rejects the possibility of redemption, rehabilitation or even moral certitude. In Coetzee’s world, the base impulses of ordinary people assume monstrous proportions during political strife, even as scores of lives are consumed as collateral damage every day. Instead of going through what he perceives as the university’s performative rehabilitation routine, Lurie chooses exile, unemployment — and, of course, disgrace.

For his rigorously unsentimental examination of some very dicey topics, Coetzee was hailed by readers and writers everywhere. Outside of the literary world, though, just about everybody hated Coetzee’s guts. South Africa’s then president Thabo Mbeki slammed the book, declaring that “South Africa is not only a country of rape”. Mbeki also felt that the black characters in the novel were uniformly depicted as violent, dangerous individuals. White conservatives, in both South Africa and the West, declared that Coetzee was trying to force undeserved guilt down their throats.

And yet, one feels certain that Mbeki and company’s comments wouldseem like heartfelt literary criticism when compared to the maelstrom that social media would have rained down on a novel like Disgrace today.

The female body as battlefield

We are told, early on in the novel, that Lurie is very attracted to a student in his class, Melanie Isaacs. Soon, he takes her out to dinner and plies her with several drinks before having sex with her, once she’s clearly not in a state to provide informed consent (hence the aforementioned “undesired to the core” comment by Lurie).

First and foremost, the two rapes (Isaacs’ and Lucy’s) at the heart of the novel would have been misinterpreted by conservative and liberal commentators alike.

When Lucy is raped by Petrus’s nephew Pollux and his friends, it comes as the culmination of a sequence of events. In post-apartheid South Africa in the ’90s, farmlands owned by white people began to be taken over by black activists who saw it as a legitimate redistribution of resources. After all, decades of land-grabbing by white men had to be reversed at some point, they argued. But somewhere down the line, it became open season on white farmers, especially those with conspicuously large holdings. There were a number of horrific, violent incidents across the country at this point, including a string of rapes.

Words and the man: JM Coetzee won his second Man Booker Prize in 1999 for Disgrace. In 2003, he was awarded the Nobel in literature   -  IMAGE COURTESY: Wikipedia


The female body, having long been the site for racist colonial narratives, becomes one for postcolonial retribution. Coetzee’s peculiar genius is in staring this violence in the face and showing us, paragraph by searing paragraph, how the two phenomena start to resemble each other (even if the violence of the oppressor and the violence of the oppressed cannot be compared).

First, we see Lurie’s sexual appetite for black/brown women towards the beginning of the book, through his visit to a “coloured prostitute”. Then, we see him lusting after his student Isaacs (whose race is never specified in the novel, while in the movie adaptation of the book, she’s a light-skinned black woman), whom he calls “my Melani”. “Melani”, or variants thereof, means ‘dark’ in various languages (from the word ‘melanin’, which refers to the compound responsible for pigmentation in human skin).

Some might argue (I don’t) that sexual preferences can exist on a plane separate from politics, that there are limits to performing political biopsies on personal choices (typically, this argument turns up on social media as a defence of race-, caste- or religion-based endogamy). And while Coetzee is too smart a writer to demolish such a notion explicitly, he does it all the same, in a subtle, almost stealthy manner. Details like Lurie’s nickname for Melanie are piled on and on until we see clearly how the professor’s actions are neither wholly personal nor clearly political in nature, which was always Coetzee’s point to begin with.

Compare this to Lucy’s rape by Pollux. It is easy to see why this episode might be misinterpreted as a racial caricature — specifically, the ‘threatening’ masculinity of the black man. The image of a scary African man raping white women has a long and ugly history of scaremongering behind it. In Coetzee’s novel, this history is buried just below the surface, in the racially charged exchanges between Lurie and Pollux. As communication begins to break down, Pollux exits with a genocidal threat (“we’ll kill you all”).

As per usual for Coetzee, he goes just that little bit further, and alludes to the fact of narratives leaning on women’s bodies to make political points — a moment of sly self-awareness (or flagellation, whichever way you look at it). Lucy tells her father angrily, “You behave as if everything I do is part of the story of your life. You are the main character, I am a minor character who doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through.”

Predator is as predator does

Much of the first 50-60 pages in Disgrace is a kind of slow-burning con — Coetzee invests a lot of time and patience in attuning the reader to Lurie’s somewhat mundane life, even in the wake of his ouster from his college. It’s the kind of thing that in the hands of a lesser writer would teeter close to normalising a predator — but on the odd occasion when he does think or talk about the affair, he shows his hand (like the initial revelation about Lurie plying Isaacs with several drinks).

Conversely, in Lurie’s clear-cut disapproval of the university’s protocol, Coetzee critiques a system where punitive measures take precedence over reparations, and the rituals of punishment become a kind of framing device for the institution’s collective shame. Just as he exits the inquiry, Lurie is confronted by a young woman (presumably a reporter) with a microphone, who asks him if he has any regrets. Lurie’s response and the eventual reaction are telling: “Confessions, apologies: Why this thirst for abasement? A hush falls. They circle around him like hunters who have cornered a strange beast and do not know how to finish it off.”

Elsewhere, he tells his daughter about his discomfiture with the university’s process. “It reminds me too much of Mao’s China. Recantation, self-criticism, public apology.” It’s a classic Coetzee slight, at once withering and dispassionate. This does not mean that Coetzee doesn’t consider Lurie’s behaviour to be less-than-predatory — the author is merely expanding the scope of his comedy to include the jury alongside the accused. It also comes down to the fact that to Lurie, his affair was a matter of failed communication (even if he’s not denying the encounter was not quite consensual), which is a personal as well as professional failure for him, a literal professor of Communications. In fact, this theme is a much bigger one than we realise initially — the limitations of language in general (exemplified by Lurie’s wordless bond with terminally ill dogs at a shelter, in the book’s second half) and of English in particular.

“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.” The triplicate construction — “their articulations, their articulateness, their articulatedness” — is a thing of beauty, really. It alludes to the paradox at the heart of language today — that we’re all finding better and better ways to express just how badly we are failing to communicate with each other.

In 2006, The Sunday Times decided to send two Booker-winning novels to a number of major publishers and literary agents — in disguise. The books were VS Naipaul’s In a Free State and Stanley Middleton’s Holiday. The reporters who sent these manuscripts received 21 responses, of which 20 were rejections, from publishing firms such as Bloomsbury and literary agents Lucas Alexander Whitley. Not one person recognised these classics or their authors.

Today, if we were to repeat this experiment, but with Disgrace this time around, one feels sure that a number of publishers would reject the book, or, at the very least, demand major edits to some of the parts cited here.

And that, perhaps, is the kind of endorsement that Coetzee would wear as a true badge of honour.

Published on September 13, 2019

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