J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace (Viking, 1999)
[originally posted 14Aug2000]
As far as the rest of the world is concerned, the war is over. Apartheid has been smashed, South Africa is integrated, we can all forget SA exists and go on with our lives. South Africans, on the other hand, are painfully aware that the battle has just begun. And like all revolutions, it will not be bloodless.
J. M. Coetzee was on the front lines of the fight against apartheid for decades. As a sidelight, he became a blinkin’ good author, gained international acclaim, won most every award known to man, and did more than any living human being, with the arguable exception of Nelson Mandela, to expose and underline the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. And now, with the legislation changing and integration happening, like most revolutionaries, he’s going through the inevitable period of questioning: were things, perhaps, better the old way?
The result is Disgrace, a look at life in the new South Africa from as jaundiced an eye as one may ever encounter. The plot is thus: a womanizing university professor is caught, as it were, with his pants down. Facing censure form the college, he leaves and goes to stay with his daughter and her previously-worker-and-now-fellow-landowner away from the city for a while. In the country, events conspire to make him re-examine his viewpoint on everything from animal cruelty to (of course) the situation of minorities in South Africa under the new, “liberal” government. And the answers he comes up with, for the most part, he doesn’t like.
Yes. It’s just as depressing as it sounds, for the most part; the razor-sharp wit that Coetzee is famous for is in short supply here. There’s the occasional chuckle, usually in sympathy for some boneheaded blunder, but no real out-and-out snickers at the stupidity inherent in the society around the characters; the tone of the book is more a stunned despair that the ideals of the revolution, five years on, could still be so far from realization. (A look at the American civil rights movement should have set the revolutionaries straight, but… you know.) But the depression factor doesn’t preclude an appreciation for the lyricism of Coetzee’s prose. Far from it. This is a simple human tragedy, albeit one of country-wide proportions, played out in its own minimal and somewhat pathetic fashion by a white man and a black man who remember life under apartheid all too well, and the way the world is slowly disintegrating around them.
Coetzee, of course, provides no easy answers; he’s smart enough, and probably cynical enough, to realize they don’t exist, and that South Africa, much like the characters in Disgrace, will simply have to keep stumbling along in the darkness until they trip over a lamp. And when they do, they hope against hope that, perhaps, they will have matches. *** ½
Disgrace was adapted into a film in 2008, starring John Malkovich in the lead role; here’s the trailer.