Editor’s note: Richard Godwin is a writer of crime and thriller fiction, and his debut novel is about to be released in March, 2011. While he is known for his dark fiction, he also writes plays and produces interviews in his Chin Wag series. Regular readers know that he brings an amazing scope of knowledge and experience to his interviews and his sense of humor is conveyed in his conversations. You can check out Richard’s website here.
J.M. COETZEE’S ‘DISGRACE’ AND COLONIAL ACQUISITION
By Richard Godwin
Nobel Prize winning author J.M. Coetzee has written much about Apartheid and South Africa and he has documented its struggles through the spare prose of his novels.
In ‘Disgrace’, published in 1999, he tells the story of fifty-two year old Professor Lurie’s public humiliation. Coetzee delves deep into a character riddled with patriarchal conditioning and the illusion of enlightenment as he dramatizes the conflict between politicized gender play and the backdrop of a violent predatory South Africa.
Professor Lurie is divorced and filled with desire and no passion. The sterile style Coetzee uses to convey this allows the reader a necessary distance to the events that unfold.
He also uses the present tense throughout to convey an immediacy that is a salutary balance to this style:
‘‘On Thursday afternoons he drives to Green point. Punctually at two p.m. he presses the buzzer at the entrance to Windsor mansions, speaks his name, and enters. Waiting for him…is Soraya. He goes straight through to the bedroom, which is pleasant-smelling and softly lit, and undresses. Soraya emerges from the bathroom, drops her robe, and slides into bed beside him.’’
This is from the opening of the novel where he visits his mistress and conducts a passionless session of vaginal masturbation.
It is the prelude for what is to follow.
Coetzee allows the reader to make his or her own mind up about his protagonist as the drama unfolds at a steady pace.
Lurie is part of the illusion within academia that it has evolved beyond the sexual prejudices that may threaten its legitimacy.
He uses his mistress and keeps his neat life.
His life spirals out of control when he has an affair with a student and trespasses on territory that exposes the power mechanisms at work.
Coetzee shows brilliantly that fucking a student while occupying a hierarchical position is allied to the worst predatory violations.
‘’He makes love to her one more time, on the bed in his daughter’s room. It is good, as good as the first time; he is beginning to learn the way her body moves. She is quick, and greedy for experience. If he does not sense in her a fully sexual appetite, that is only because she is still young.’’
The daughter’s bedroom is significant.
Although the student, Melanie, has approached Lurie for sex, it is clear who has the dominant position and Coetzee scrambles any easy prefigured moral judgments.
There are echoes of David Mamet’s ‘Oleanna’ in the power struggle. Once again a great writer is showing that the situations where institutionalized protocol calls for black and white judgment may involve much deeper cultural conditioning, whose roots still adhere to the deeper soil we tread on.
Lurie is exposed when Melanie tells her boyfriend and her father angrily confronts him.
He admits his guilt to her father and is called to a hearing as his job is placed on the line.
Interestingly he makes no defense of his conduct, as if his guilt is commensurate with the assumption of power that prefaced it. It seems we are now in the terrain of colonialist guilt.
His colleagues are angered by his initial resistance to put in a plea. They have a procedure that is their guide and he is not playing ball.
‘’Frankly what you want from me is not a response but a confession. Well, I make no confession. I put forward a plea, as is my right. Guilty as charged. That is my plea. That is as far as I am prepared to go.’’
These are Lurie’s words as he challenges academia’s inadequacy to deal with the situation in any other terms than employment guidelines drawn up by lawyers guarding against law suits and exposure by the media.
His sterility is shared by them.
Finally one of his colleagues names the offense in the terms that seem unavoidable:
‘’…he says he is guilty; but when we try to get specificity, all of a sudden it is not abuse of a young woman he is confessing to, just an impulse he could not resist, with no mention of the pain he has caused, no mention of the long history of exploitation of which this is part.’’
And here Coetzee brings in the long history. The long history they are surrounded by in the author’s homeland with its wider implications of white on black exploitation.
Lurie’s reaction is conveyed brilliantly as we are shown what is going on inside him as his life begins to fall apart:
‘’Abuse: he was waiting for the word. Spoken in a voice quivering with righteousness. What does she see, when she looks at him, that keeps her at such a pitch of anger? A shark among the helpless little fishes? Or does she have another vision: of a great thick-boned male bearing down on a girl-child, a huge hand stifling her cries?’’
While it is clear the sexual act that has caused his downfall was consensual, Coetzee makes it clear that Lurie has crossed a line and is being judged in terms that have not taken into account all the moral and cultural ramifications and permutations that it suggests.
Lurie loses his career and is publicly humiliated.
His ex wife ridicules him and he leaves to go and visit his daughter on her smallholding in a land where property is hotly contested from the position of a power struggle which is racial.
The analogy with Mamet’s ‘Oleanna’ is there in the academic sections of the novel, albeit without the acute dramatic tension, since Coetzee lets the narrative unfold at a measured pace, but here it ends.
Now he deepens it to involve the political situation in South Africa, keeping all the while Lurie’s offense in the open. He is seen as an offender, a man in disgrace.
It is clear he does not know his daughter Lucy, he has held onto the image of her that comforts him:
‘’…here she is, flowered dress, bare feet and all, in a house full of the smell of baking, no longer a child playing at farming but a solid countrywoman….’.
We are thrown back to his affair with Melanie, and Coetzee cleverly raises the question of whether Lurie’s ego is stuck at a point in time where he felt the most power, whether that power is tied to the illusion of the male protection of women and its economic binds.
It is clear he does not know how to speak to Lucy and has gone there for nurturing.
She has a black man name Petrus working for her on her property and the tension between him and Lurie is clear from the start.
Lurie does not trust him and he is right.
As his alienation from his life and its redundant meanings grows, Lurie tries to enter Lucy’s world with her animal welfare campaigns and self-sufficiency. It is clear that what he inherited will not be cleansed, if cleansing is what is needed, and that the politics of desire and control are not allies.
‘’He has stayed with his daughter only for brief periods before. Now he is sharing her house, her life. He has to be careful not to allow old habits to creep back, the habits of a parent: putting the toilet roll on the spool, switching off lights, chasing the cat off the sofa. Practice for old age, he admonishes himself. Practice fitting in. Practice for the old folks’ home.’’
It is at this point the reader feels that his refusal to defend his action is as much part of his guilt, as is his awareness that his position is hopeless, given the fact that he is a middle class male.
As the tension between him and Lucy grows a conflict between her and local blacks develops.
Property ownership and racial struggle are linked as she is up against male aggression and black anger against whites. Coetzee places these struggles firmly within the family control system and the politics of South Africa. Sexual control, family control, state control and racial conflict are all linked.
Lucy is raped by local blacks and Petrus knows about it. He may have encouraged it.
The rape is shown to be the ultimate act of political control and throws the reader’s mind back to the accusations of abuse leveled at Lurie.
The non-consensual nature and violence of the act during which Lurie is injured trying to defend Lucy make a radical contrast to the earlier scene with Melanie, and yet both show different sides of a power structure that may be patriarchal yet seem to have a wider significance in terms of both race and gender.
His protection is as obsolete as he is, it is an artifact from another era prior to Lucy’s rape and his slow ruin.
‘’ ‘My child, my child!’ he says, holding out his arms to her. When she does not come, he puts aside his blanket, stands up, and takes her in his arms. In his embrace she is stiff as a pole, yielding nothing.’’
The male need for recuperative power at the sight of the rape of a loved one is now part of the drama.
The police only worsen the situation as more intrusion on the intruded occurs.
Lurie, despite himself, cannot help but act out the stereotypes he inherited and with which he is imbued. He finds Lucy’s reaction to her rape unfathomable:
‘’There is an even more sinister explanation for Lucy’s moodiness, one that he cannot put from his mind. ‘Lucy’, he asks the same day out of the blue, ‘you aren’t hiding something from me, are you? You didn’t pick up something from those men?’’
Property, power, racial supremacy and control are all now merged. And Lucy’s state of shock is quite lost on her father:
‘’She is sitting on the sofa in pajamas and dressing-gown, playing with the cat. The cat is young, alert, and skittish. Lucy dangles the belt of the gown before it. The cat slaps at the belt, quick, light paw-blows, one-two-three-four.’’
Lurie finds out the identity of the rapist and challenges him as he watches through a window as Lucy showers.
His physical assault on the young man is his desperate effort to redeem himself and regain some power. It causes a breakdown in his relationship with Lucy.
She feels he is taking control of what has happened to her:
‘’I am the one who has to live here. What happened to me is my business, mine alone…..’’
Later in the novel Lucy tells him what she felt and it seems tied to ownership, the kind of ownership that Coetzee has illustrated throughout the novel:
‘’ ‘It was so personal’, she says. ‘It was done with such hatred.’ ‘’
Lucy’s ownership of land in territory where the racially disenfranchised are trying to regain power has evoked not only the darkest acts of gender conflict but the history of South Africa.
And this is where Coetzee is brilliant. He starts with one theme and adds layers and layers to it to bring out its complexity without moral judgment.
Lurie’s life is in ruins.
He is alienated from everything he believed in.
He needs his daughter:
‘’He lays a protective hand on Lucy’s shoulder. My daughter, he thinks; my dearest daughter. Whom it has fallen to me to guide. Who one of these days will have to guide me.
Can she smell his thoughts?’’
Lurie stays on and ends up in bed with Bev, who runs the animal shelter, a friend of his Lucy’s.
He helps with the animals.
They have to make the decision which animals to save and which are beyond repair.
The novel’s ending conjures up an image of the unrepairable male colonialism and the ravaged political wasteland of South Africa: as Lurie and Bev put some stray dogs down:
‘’He crosses the surgery. ‘Was that the last?’ asks Bev Shaw.
He opens the cage door. ‘Come’, he says, bends, opens his arms. The dog wags its crippled rear, sniffs his face, licks his cheeks, his lips, his ears. He does nothing to stop it. ‘Come’.
Bearing him in his arms like a lamb, he re-enters the surgery. ‘I thought you would save him for another week’, says Bev Shaw. ‘Are you giving him up?’
‘Yes, I am giving him up.’ ‘’
That is where then novel ends, back at the beginning, where Lurie gave up at the hearing knowing he would not be heard, that is was a ceremony for the doomed.
And that is where it leaves the reader, questioning whether the accepted interpretations of power are right or merely a backlash, much like the one seen in South Africa.