J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace

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This is the first Coetzee book I read. It was a quick, easy read, which does not mean it does not provide food for thought. In fact, it brings up a number of interesting issues. As it is set in post-apartheid South Africa, the question of race relations in that country is, of course, present. It shows in unsettling ways the ever-present possibility of violence in these relations. It also shows the complexity of human relations and social ties in both urban and rural SA. All of this underlies a study in gender relations.

The title refers to the trouble that the main character, David Lurie, a literature and communication skills professor, gets into after he has sex with one of his students. The young woman may be been a somewhat reluctant participant and subsequently makes a complaint to the university. A committee is formed to examine the complaint and Lurie is subsequently dismissed, hence his state of disgrace. As painful as that may be, it is only the beginning of his problems.

The plot also includes several other encounters that shed light both on Lurie as a person and on gender relations in general: a former wife, a daughter and a neighbor of his daughter for whom he does some volunteer work and who becomes for a time his lover. While some may have Lurie for his self-centeredness (maybe even narcissism), others may focus more on the human frailty he displays in his inability to understand his daughter and his own doubts about his scholarly work.

The theme that is the most heart-wrenching for me in this novel has to do with handling pain, be it physical, emotional or existential. David and his daughter are victims of violent crime and must come to terms with its consequences. In the end, he learns one big lesson: how detachment leads to greater resilience. And while, we may, as he does, disagree with the path chosen by others, it is theirs to follow.

 

Reference

Coetzee, J.M., Disgrace, Penguin Books, 2008 [1999].

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