It would be a profound understatement to say that I do not like J. M. Coetzee’s novel “Disgrace” and yet I still find it a stunning work of art. Reading the first part, I began to feel uneasy. Pressing on, began to feel disgust. Finally, I felt revulsion, pity, and a sense of defeat. And yet...
Many keys have been pounded and much ink spilt in talking about the novel as a work of commentary on modern South Africa, on the specter of white western colonialism and its aftermath, and on Coetzee’s philosophy of history and the individual. Some of the most interesting commentary I have read involves the treatment of women, especially in analyzing Lurie’s relationship with a black prostitute and a black student in the beginning of the book, where he wants to be a sort of “daddy” of the predatory nature, and his relationship with his daughter in the rest of the book, where he moves from active agent of black female debasement to a powerless protector of his white daughter at the hands of black men even worse than Lurie himself.
Where the previous book in the Redonda read-along – “Amador” - dealt with a father’s idealized philosophical advice to his son, “Disgrace” offers us a nightmare vision of a father incapable of protecting his daughter and unable to come to terms with the world around him. The claim in the first line that the good professor has solved the problem of sex does nothing but illustrate how unsolved that particular problem is. After he violates one of his students and is dismissed from his position at the university, he retreats to his daughter’s little place on the outskirts of civilization. We realize right away that, as little as he comprehends sex or his role in the incident with his student, he understands his own child even less. She – a rather ungainly lesbian - is not at all the type of woman he would pursue or acknowledge, an observation that in itself speaks volumes about the professor. During the book’s most uncomfortable moment – at least for me – two men and a boy arrive and ask to use the telephone. This pretext leads to Lurie being locked in the bathroom and set on fire while his daughter is gang-raped and her shelter dogs are methodically shot in their cages. During this, Lurie calls out “my child, my child” from the bathroom, and the futility of his lament almost made me choke. I literally felt the need to go outside and take a breath of fresh air. That Coetzee captures so much of the character’s internal life and the pedestrian violence of the situation with such sparse dialog is a wonder of literature. At one point, the door to the bathroom opens and Lurie is able to catch a glimpse of the boy eating ice cream from a tub. The moment reminded me of Achilles chasing Hector around the walls of troy and Homer taking the time to mention, in this horrific moment, that one of the places by which they ran was a spot where the women washed clothes. Domesticity and everyday life rubbing elbows with cruel atrocities. And that is sort of the point. We exist in a world in which the two mingle, overlap, and feed into each other.
I’m still not sure what to make of the rest of the book and with his daughter Lucy’s decisions in it, but the work does bring to light two very uncomfortable truths about parents and children: 1.) After a certain point, our children are no longer under our guidance, nor are they necessarily understandable to us. They are people, different people, not the same ones we raised and cared for. They have their own agency. And, even more painful for a father of a little girl, 2.) We can try, we can forever remain vigilant, we can pour our lives into our children, but we cannot protect them from everything. Of course, the tragedies that will befall are often much less severe than those in “Disgrace,” but there are tragedies nonetheless The most precious things on this earth are susceptible to the ugly brutality of existence. And yet –and here I think Lurie fails – we must try. The “Disgrace” is in doing anything less. His redemption came at a high price, but I am left wondering if it is any redemption at all.