Great Novels: Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

Disgrace is a novel rich in symbolism and undertones which address its postcolonial message. The novel focuses on the political conflict rife in post-Apartheid South Africa, as the country struggles to adapt to a world after almost fifty years of racial segregation. The power balance in the country is shifting, and the novel’s protagonist, David Lurie, finds himself struggling with the unhappy realization that political change cannot eradicate human misery; that in some cases, it can exacerbate it. A proud womanizer, Lurie loses his job as a professor in Cape Town after an impulsive affair with a student, and goes to stay with his daughter Lucy for a while in rural South Africa. He cannot comprehend the post-Apartheid world that Lucy lives in, and remains nostalgically concerned with “the old days”. At one point Lucy snaps: “Wake up, David. This is the country. This is Africa”. In the country, a chain of events occur which alters their lives forever, causing Lurie to question almost every aspect of his existence. Coetzee’s novel opens the reader’s eyes to the more subtle problems inherent in a post-Apartheid world, the problems lying beneath the surface, which reside within the mindsets of individuals such as Lurie.

The style of the novel is sparse and concise; like a poem, it reads as if Coetzee has carefully considered the value of every word on the page, and ensured each was truly necessary before committing it to print. The beauty of Disgrace is its ability to link personal identity to wider political conflicts through its use of symbolism and metonymy. Lurie himself is representative of the post-Apartheid confusion in Africa as he constantly wavers in his actions, lacking direction and purpose. His affair with his student is described as “not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless”. Lurie’s treatment of women throughout Disgrace has parallels with the treatment of black South Africans by colonial powers: there is an important comment made by Lucy in which she likens rape to murder, focusing on the symbol of a knife. This is just one of the many examples of sentences and words that resonate throughout the novel, possessing significance as structures in themselves, but also as methods of enforcing the novel’s wider themes and messages. Every one of Lurie’s comments is revealing not only of his personal state, but of the state of the world he inhabits: he muses, “Italian and French will not save him here in darkest Africa”, indicative of the division between North and South Africa. The horrific events experienced by David and Lucy in the country epitomise, in microcosm, the disastrous consequences of such a division. Reading Disgrace is like stopping at an endless series of crossroads, such is the wealth of undertones that greets the reader at every sentence. This is a truly fascinating novel, which raises many more questions than it answers, and even on the fourth read will cause you to consider something new.

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by Elly McCausland