ON THE SECOND page of South African J.M. Coetzee's novel Disgrace, the central character reminds himself of the message in the last chorus of Oedipus: "Call no man happy until he is dead." Call no country just or free, either, judging by this troubling and brilliant portrayal of life in the new South Africa.
At 52, David Lurie, Cape Town adjunct professor of "communications" (in the old regime, modern languages), seems relatively content, even happy, with life. He slips almost transparently through his required course load to offer one class in his area of interest -- English Romantic poets; he purchases regular, unencumbered sex; communicates easily with at least one former wife; and is toying with the notion of writing an opera featuring Lord Byron in Italy. It's when he urges an affair on a girl in his poets class that the Sophoclean warning resonates.
Disgrace is the eighth novel by J.M. Coetzee, who's also published five works of non-fiction. Just awarded the prestigious British Booker Prize for 1999 (the first author to win more than once -- his Life & Times of Michael K received the award in 1984), Disgrace chronicles not only the consequences of one man's fall, but those of the reordering of an entire society.
When a complaint is lodged against David Lurie for sexual harassment, he accepts guilt. When he refuses to publicly apologize for it, he loses his job. It's when he visits his daughter on her small farm in the east Cape that he's forced to come to grips with both his own nature and that of changing South Africa. One nondescript afternoon, returning from walking dogs, he and his daughter encounter three men who will forever change their lives. "So it has come, the day of testing," Lurie thinks, in a line recalling Thomas Becket in Anouihl's Oedipus. "Without warning, without fanfare, it is here..."
A short novel, tersely and sparely crafted, Disgrace has more than a reversal of fortune in common with Oedipus; once the plot is set in motion, the action becomes compelling. Old assumptions cannot stand, solutions are not simple, and life at home means living with the sins of the fathers.
Reversals are central to the novel: personal, familial, gender, political and legal, socio-economic, artistic. None is clearly defined, and all are in a state of flux.
Lurie's daughter Lucy, to whose sanctuary he retreats after his dismissal, provides one example. The only child of two sophisticated urban intellectuals, she is the barefoot, overweight owner of a small farm and kennel holding in the country. The daughter of a handsome and once romantically irresistible man, she chooses Sapphic love or celibacy. Raised seeing her father engaged in Wordsworth and Keats, she peddles nasturtiums and winter squash in the Saturday farmers' market. And, in a roundly disturbing reflection of the exigencies of independent South Africa, she's willing to forego independence and justice for personal survival. "I don't act," she tells her father heatedly, as he attempts to persuade her to exact justice for her wrong, "in terms of abstractions."
Lurie himself is caught in reversal's whip. Guest in his daughter's home, alien on her turf, he brings to her setting old economic, racial and social pretensions that inevitably collapse. Then assaulted himself, incapacitated, he appears emasculated: he's stripped of good looks and virility, and proves unable to protect the one being entrusted to his care, his daughter. Underlying all of it is the irony of the violator being violated; of the colonized turning colonizer.
Petrus, the third significant character in Disgrace, represents something as inexorable and implacable as the tides or seasons. Formerly Lucy's employee, Pestrus lives with one of his wives in Lucy's old stable, now equipped with electricity. By dint of a Land Affairs grant, he's become a landowner looking to expand his holdings. Looking for some way for Lurie to occupy his time, Lucy suggests he give Petrus a hand. "I like that," Lurie responds. "I like the historical piquancy. Will he pay me a wage for my labour, do you think?" Lurie sees Petrus as the face of the new South Africa. That Petrus is inexplicably missing the day the men arrive on Lucy's property further complicates the issue.
Resonating through Coetzee's work, and informing both character and theme is the element of literature, that of Wordsworth, Hardy and Byron, the aging illicit lover. It's not lost on Lurie the professor that teaching the Romantics to a post-literate audience promises a sort of futility. It's not lost to the reader that Lurie himself is a bit of unreformed canon in a social curriculum of diversity and postmodernism. In South Africa, Truth and Reconciliation is a sort of oxymoron. But the novel is written in the present tense. After it ends, there's a sense that the stories of David Lurie, Lucy Lurie and Petrus continue to unfold. There's still time to "call a man happy." And you can call Disgrace superb.