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Disgrace by J.M Coetzee

19/05/2013

I doubt I will be spoiling this novel for future readers in revealing that, as the title suggests, this is not a cheerful and uplifting book. J.M Coetzee won the Booker prize in 1999 for this bleak look at post apartheid South Africa through the lens of a somewhat lecherous middle aged University Professor as his main protagonist.

As a literature professor at Cape Town University David Lurie, a middle aged white South African discusses the deep intimacy of romantic poets such as Lord Byron yet he appears no longer able to forge meaningful connections in his own life that extend beyond the lurid physical ones of which we are given evidence.

After a brief liason with a young female student, he finds himself the subject of a witch hunt of the student populace, who seem to view him as a relic in the new South Africa. Exposed and shamed, he is forced into resignation, and goes to stay with his estranged daughter on her farm. His relationship with his daughter is an uncomfortable one where neither is sure of their roles following his fall from grace and how to interact with one another. David Lurie broods introspectively about this world where he finds it difficult to relate to people and wonders if the romantic poets he so cherishes have any relevance to the place around him.

Post Apartheid

Both David Lurie and his daughter are brutally beaten and in her case raped by a group of black youths. The violence is shocking for the pair of them and clearly shakes our protagonist to the core but there is also a sense of the mundane in the acts as if it is not extraordinary. The commonplace nature of crime in South Africa is reinforced later when our protagonist discovers he has been robbed.

The incident tells a tale of the post Apartheid South Africa which remains uncomfortable with itself with David’s daughter reflecting on white South Africans’ lingering guilt for the horrible legacy of the Apartheid system.

Conclusion

It may seem churlish to describe a novel of just 220 pages that deals with such intense subject matter as meandering but I felt at times the novel lacked the flow and coherence needed to carry the story and fully engage the reader. In spite of this criticism, Coetzee writes well,  and succeeds in depicting the uncomfortable nature of race relations in a violent country uncertain of its future having torn down the artificial barriers of apartheid.

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