Thursday, 9 April 2009
Disgrace - J.M.Coetzee
Rightfully regarded as the best Commonwealth novel of the 20 years, Disgrace tells the story of a white academic and his long, self-imposed, fall from grace in post-apartheid South Africa. Having spent years teaching Romantic poetry at the Technical University of Cape Town, David Lurie finds himself outdated and old, no longer representative of the world him. Feeling increasingly resentful, he has an impulsive affair with a student but when it turns sour he is denounced and brought before an employment tribunal. Obstinate to the end, he refuses to repent publicly, preferring to retire and make himself a martyr for all that has been and passed.
Hoping that a spell of fresh air and honest work will silence the disquieting sense of loss which is beginning to engulf him he retreats to stay with his daughter on a ranch in the heart of the wilderness. But when they are victims of a vicious attack David comes to realise that age is not something which can be fought forever, that time waits for no man. This is a story about growing old disgracefully, about being left behind by history and finding oneself completely isolated in your home country. It is a journey into the modern Africa, and the very real heart of darkness which resides there. Through the relationship between Lurie and his daughter we see the terrible impossibility of white life in modern, black, South Africa.
It is fascinating to live the other side of the headlines and see the rollover legacy of post-apartheid political correctness. Along with Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country, Disgrace is a novel which simply resonates South Africa. Between them they are almost like a conversation being shouted across the years, separated by the history of the apartheid. It is a conversation about South Africa and its people, the terrible impossibility and the hesitant optimism, a country torn apart by years of racial tension which cannot be remedied simply by the abolition of privilege. The fault lines run much deeper than that.
Disgrace is beautifully written, quietly understated, elegiac and evocative. With its unique and powerful narrative and sense of untamed regret in untameable conditions it is one of the most beautiful books I have read. Take this phrase, how can writing achieve such simple magnitude?
“He sighs. The young in one another’s arms, heedless, engrossed in the sensual music. No country, this, for old men. He seems to be spending a lot of time sighing. Regret: a regrettable note on which to go out.”
I read Disgrace in one joyful afternoon which I will always treasure and strive to recreate. Beautiful snippets, little moments when life seems all at once in harmony. Like great novels they do not come along often and when they do, one must treasure them, for they are more valuable than gold.
9.5 out of 10