The New South
"Another incident in the great campaign of redistribution," mutters the protagonist of J. M. Coetzee's Booker Prize-winning novel, Disgrace, as he discovers that his house has been ransacked and looted during a long absence. This incidental muttering, almost an afterthought, lies at the thematic and emotional center of this short but powerful novel. As with all of Coetzee's work, the new South Africa is a looming presence, both literally, as the story's setting, and thematically, as its characters struggle to adapt to a culture that has been remade, often violently, from the bottom up. And while Disgrace offers a lot on the larger themes of power, redistribution, reformation, forgiveness, and more, it is at heart a finely tuned and often bleak portrayal of one man who realizes that he has become outmoded and outdated.
Professor David Lurie bears no small resemblance to Coetzee himself: a late-middle-aged white South African professor with more than a little charm. It is therefore somewhat alarming when we discover, in the novel's opening pages, that Professor Lurie has taken to visiting prostitutes after the disintegration of two marriages and that he makes a habit of seducing his students. Like the opening of Mike Leigh's film "Naked" (when we witness the protagonist's attempt to rape a woman in an alley), the latest affair with a girl in his class on the Romantic poets is not viewed through rose-tinted lenses: "She does not resist. All she does is avert herself." Coetzee leaves little room for doubt that the professor is using his power and influence over the girl, against her wishes; and when his career swiftly unravels after she lodges a formal complaint, it's hard to feel much sympathy for him. This, then, must be the "disgrace" of the title, thinks the reader, and in a simpler novel, it might be. But this is only the beginning, as Lurie travels into the countryside to find refuge with a daughter who is managing a farm on her own in a dangerously isolated part of South Africa. It is in this new setting where the real disgrace occurs; Professor Lurie's troubles have only just begun.
It doesn't take long to grasp the larger implications of a story about a South African white man being judged by a culture that no longer accepts behavior that has been accepted for years. These implications become more complicated when a series of black characters, beginning with Lurie's daughter's neighbor, Petrus, appear. Disgrace is filled with power dynamicsbetween men and women, whites and blacks, even humans and dogsand Coetzee is skilled at giving just enough detail and analysis to outline the issues without lecturing us.
Even when Coetzee does outright instruct, it's well worth it: "Scapegoating worked in practice while it still had religious power behind it. You loaded the sins of the city on to the goat's back and drove it out, and the city was cleansed. It worked because everyone knew how to read this ritual, including the gods. Then the gods died, and all of a sudden you had to clean out the city without divine help. Real actions were demanded instead of symbolism." It is this new setting, where the gods have died and symbolismincluding that of his beloved Romanticsoften falls on deaf eyes and ears, where Professor Lurie finds himself; and Disgrace portrays his efforts to make sense of this strange, atonal place.
Coetzee is a master stylist, able to integrate themes into the movement of his story in ways that will cause envy in novelists of lesser powers. To incorporate Coetzee's chosen themes seamlessly into a novel triple Disgrace's length would be an accomplishment; to do so in 200 pages without ever seeming heavy-handedpartly thanks to a brilliant subplot of Lurie's efforts to write an opera based on Byronis nothing short of a miracle. Disgrace is one of those rare books that will satisfy a reader on nearly every level, from the universal issues of power and retribution to the more local versions specific to the new South Africa to the truly personal: the trials of one man who is certainly no saint but perhaps not so different from many of us.
The kind of territory J.M Coetzee has made his own...By this late point in the century, the journey to a heart of narrative darkness has become a safe literary destination...Disgrace goes beyond this to explore the furthest reaches of what it means to be human: it is at the frontier of world literature.
Disgrace is a gripping tale told with spare pose, steely intelligence and a remarkable degree of tenderness.
Disgrace is a superbly constructed work of pain and candor, and although it involves events that require the largest generosity, it has as its hero a man gripped by habbits of petty selfishness.
Book Magazine March/April 2000
New York Times Book Review
The effect of the novel's plot is deeply disturbing, in part because of what happens to David and Lucy, but equally because of the disintegrating context of their experiences.
In his sober, searing and even cynical little book Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee tells us something we all suspect and fear -- that political change can do almost nothing to eliminate human misery. What it can do, he suggests, is reorder it a little and half-accidentally introduce a few new varieties. This view should not surprise any of the great South African novelist's readers. In his early-1980s masterpieces Waiting for the Barbarians and Life & Times of Michael K -- indeed, in all of his work -- political and historical forces blow through the lives of individuals like nasty weather systems, bringing with them a destruction that is all the more cruel for being impersonal. Disgrace is Coetzee's first book to deal explicitly with post-apartheid South Africa, and the picture it paints is a cheerless one that will comfort no one, no matter what race, nationality or viewpoint.
Disgrace was awarded the Booker Prize, and it has undeniable echoes of Michael K, Coetzee's 1983 Booker winner. In both books a man is broken down almost to nothing before he finds some tiny measure of redemption in his forced acceptance of the realities of life and death. But Professor David Lurie, the protagonist of Disgrace, has farther to fall than Michael K, an unsophisticated Cape Town gardener. And the clarity David comes to at the end grows largely from his accepting an ever-increasing portion of pain. "One gets used to things getting harder; one ceases to be surprised that what used to be as hard as hard can be grows harder yet," he reflects. That sentence also describes Coetzee's notion of life in the new South Africa, where, as he portrays it, brutal tyranny has been replaced by brutal anarchy.
A middle-aged, divorced scholar of Romantic poetry, David would have undoubtedly been a pathetic figure under the old regime -- one imagines an ineffectual white liberal teaching Wordsworth to bored Afrikaners while largely ignoring the atrocities perpetrated in his name. But in the Mandela era, David has become a victim of "the great rationalization": His university has been remade into a technical college, and he teaches courses in "communication skills" that he finds nonsensical. He is such a nonentity that the prostitute he patronizes weekly -- and for whom he has begun buying gifts -- stops receiving him. He imagines her and her colleagues shuddering over him "as one shudders at a cockroach in a washbasin in the middle of the night" and wonders if he can ask his doctor to castrate him as one neuters a domestic animal.
This is the first of the many comparisons of human and animal existence in Disgrace. Coetzee has always situated his characters in extreme situations that compel them to explore what it means to be human, and before this novel is over, David must endure both psychological abasement and physical torment. But Coetzee has never before asked so clearly what it is not to be human. Later in the novel, after David has fallen into disgrace and fled Cape Town for his daughter Lucy's remote farm, she tells him, "This is the only life there is. Which we share with animals."
If David is reduced at times almost to an animal existence and finally to becoming a caretaker for dying animals, it is the mendacity of language that leads him there. Toward the end of the story, he reflects that the language he and others use has become "tired, friable, eaten from the inside as if by termites" and that he, an expert practitioner, is also hollow, "like a fly-casing in a spiderweb." When he is hauled before an academic tribunal after a misbegotten affair with a student, he refuses to defend himself against charges of sexual harassment. At first he resists the spectacle of public "prurience and sentiment" the committee expects. When he finally blurts out an apology, members of the tribunal refuse to be satisfied, demanding to know whether it reflects his sincere feelings and comes from his heart.
Coetzee seems to be attacking the New Age tyranny of therapeutic discourse here, but David's own language doesn't seem much more trustworthy. He rashly tells his judges that his liaison with the pretty and almost totally passive Melanie transformed him, if only briefly: "I was no longer a fifty-year-old divorcé at a loose end. I became a servant of Eros." Readers may well be repelled by David's arrogance, and his conduct with Melanie has fallen only a little short of rape. But judging him is not a simple matter. He is a student of Romanticism whose unrealized ambition is to write a chamber opera about Byron's life in Italy. No matter how little of our sympathy David may command, he has a point: If he genuinely believed his passion for Melanie was the real thing, the flame he had been waiting his whole life to feel, then how could he not pursue her avidly?
There is something fundamentally cryptic and unsummarizable about Disgrace, but I read it as an almost metaphysical journey from this Romantic variety of love to the harsher, leaner strain David eventually learns from life on and around Lucy's farm. In Coetzee's fiction the stark and beautiful South African countryside has always played a half-allegorical role as both a destructive and a regenerative environment. He certainly can't be accused of sentimentalizing rural life; shortly after David goes to live with Lucy, a stolid lesbian who, like him, seems to have been abandoned by the world, they become victims of a vicious criminal assault that may not be as random as it first appears. Their relations with Petrus, the African farmer who is their nearest neighbor, become increasingly troubled and ambiguous. David volunteers to work for Bev, a friend of Lucy's who runs the local veterinary clinic, and comes to realize that Bev's primary role, in this impoverished land, is not to heal animals but to kill them with as much love and mercy as she can summon.
In the wake of the outrages committed against him and his daughter, David still struggles with language. His angry demands for justice get no response from the overstretched police, and his attempts to confront one of the assailants -- whom Petrus is apparently protecting -- produce only stony silences and baldfaced lies. Lucy seems to understand what David cannot: that to live where she lives she must tolerate brutalization and humiliation and simply keep going. "Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept," she tells her father. "To start at ground level. With nothing... No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity...Like a dog." If David actually reclaims some dignity by the end of Disgrace, it is only because he gives up everything, gives up more than a dog ever could -- his daughter, his ideas about justice and language, his dream of the opera on Byron and even the dying animals he has learned to love without reservation, without thought for himself.
The title of South African author J.M. Coetzee's exceptional Booker Prize-winning novel, Disgrace, is the first cue to the spare, devastating economy of his prose. Over the course of the book, the word takes on new inflections and meanings, carrying with it a bleak and deftly metaphorical reading of life after apartheid. Though his attentions will inevitably turn to race relations, Coetzee spends the riveting opening section demolishing the Ivory Tower occupied by David Lurie, a middle-aged college professor with a weakness for attractive female students.
His latest, and last, conquest is a demure young woman from his Romantic course who yields to his strenuous efforts to seduce her, but not fully. In a line that will prove to haunt Lurie later on, Coetzee describes their consummation as "not rape, not quite that, but undesired nonetheless, undesired to the core." When she reports his actions to the school board, he's cold and unrepentant, refusing to even feign contrition in order to keep his job. But the tables turn once he retreats from Cape Town to his daughter Lucy's isolated smallholding in a dangerous rural area. Though humbled enough by his peasant lifestyle, his spirits are broken one evening when three black intruders beat him near death, leaving him helpless to prevent them from raping his daughter. It's a horrifying turn of events, but what's most shocking to Lurie (and the reader) is her refusal to either report the men to the police or leave with him to a safer place.
Coetzee is obviously playing with some incendiary racial politics here, but he's skillful about situating the entire story within the context of parable. In his eyes, Lucy's violation and suffering is also South Africa's, before and after apartheid. Its effects cannot be shaken or escaped, so the only sensible recourse is to grow accustomed to it and try to be a good person. That's about as much hope as Coetzee can bring himself to offer, but Disgrace unfolds with such hardened wisdom and assurance that its arid beauty sinks into your bones.
Onion A.V. Club
Wall Street Journal
The most powerful novel this year.
Boston Sunday Globe
Disgrace is a relentlessly bleak novel.
A slim novel with a bleak powerful story to tell ... Coetzee writes with a cool, calm lucidity that fends off despair, and his characters find a kind of peace in acceptance, if not hope.
New York Post
J.M. Coetzee's new novel Disgrace, which last week won the South Afrian writer his second Booker Prize is an absolute page-turner. It is also profound, rich and remarkable ... is destined to be a classic.
Dallas Morning News
Disgrace is an act of literature ... further proof that Mr. Coetzee stands with the very best writers in the world today.
NY Times Book Review
There is more in Disgrace than I can manage to describe here. But let me end by suggesting Coetzee's most impressive achievement, one that grows from the very bones of the novel's grammar.
This novel stands as one of the few I know in which the writer's use of the present tense is in itself enough to shape the structure and form of the book as a whole. Even though it presents an almost unrelieved series of grim moments, "Disgrace" isn't claustrophobic or depressing, as some of Coetzee's earlier work has been. Its grammar allows for the sublime exhilaration of accident and surprise, and so the fate of its characters - and perhaps indeed of their country - seems not determined but improvised. Improvised in the way that our own lives are; improvised in a way that recalls the subject of Coetzee's 1994 novel, The Master of Petersburg, the novelist whom we know as Dostoyevsky.
Coetzee won an earlier Booker prize for Life & Times of Michael K. Last month's award made him the only writer ever to win it twice. "Disgrace" surely deserves such recognition. But that may, in time, come to seem among the least of this extraordinary novel's distinctions. -- (New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
As a writer, Coetzee is a literary cascade, with a steady output of fiction and criticism (literary and social) over the last two decades. This latest book, his first novel in five years, is a searing evocation of post-apartheid South Africa; it earned him an unprecedented second Booker Prize. An uninspired teacher and twice divorced, David Lurie is a 52-year-old poetry scholar-cum-"adjunct professor of communications" at Cape Technical University. Spooked by the flicker of twilight in his life trajectory, he sees himself as an aged Lothario soon to be "shuddered over" by the pretty girls he has so often wooed; he is disappointed in and unengaged by the academy he now serves by rote; and he cannot locate the notes for his opera, Byron in Italy, in which he has placed so much reluctant hope. He is, even at his best, a man of "moderated bliss." So when he seduces Melanie Isaacs, a lithe student from his poetry elective ("She does not resist. All she does is avert herself"), he believes her to represent the final object of his desire, his last act of lush, Romantic desperation. And then he is found out. This not uncommon outrage earns him a dismissal and censure from the university committee he refuses to cooperate with in hopes of saving his job. He immediately shoves off for Salem in the Eastern Cape where his daughter, Lucy, manages a dog kennel and works her smallholding, harvesting a modest crop. Here David hopes to cleanse himself with time-honored toil. But his new life in the country offers scarce refuge. Instead, he is flummoxed to discover an unfamiliar Lucy-principled, land-devoted, with a heroic resignation to the social and political developments of modern South Africa. He also memorably encounters Petrus, Lucy's ambitious colored neighbor and sometime assistant. Petrus embodies the shifting, tangled vicissitudes of a new national schematic, and forces David to relate to the broad segment of society previously shrouded by the mists of his self-absorption. But a violent attack on the estate irrevocably alters how the book's central figure perceives many things: his daughter and her bewildering (to him) courage, the rights of South Africa's grossly aggrieved majority, the souls of the damaged dogs he helps put down at the local Animal Welfare League and even the character of Lord Byron's mistress and the heroine of his operatic "chamber-play." But this is no tale of hard-earned, satisfying transformation. It is, rather, a paean to willfulness, an aria on the theme of secca, or the drying up of "the source of everything." In Coetzee's tale, not a single note is false; every sentence is perfectly calibrated and essential. Every passage questions the arbitrary division between the "major and minor" and the long-accepted injustices propped up by nothing so much as time. The book somehow manages to speak of little but interiority and still insinuate peripheries of things it doesn't touch. Somber and crystalline, it "has the right mix of timelessness and decay." It is about the harsh cleansing of humiliation and the regretfulness of knowing things: "I lack the lyrical. I manage love too well. Even when I burn I don't sing, if you understand me." To perceive is to understand in this beautifully spare, necessary novel. First serial to the New Yorker. (Nov.) FYI: Viking accelerated the pub date after the Booker Prize was announced on October 25. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
The New Yorker
Compulsively readable . . . A novel that not only works its spell but makes it impossible for us to lay it aside once we've finished reading it. . . . Coetzee's sentences are coiled springs, and the energy they release would take other writers pages to summon.
Middle-aged professor David Lurie shuffles numbly through the shifting landscape of postapartheid South Africa. After he gets fired for sleeping with one of his students--and refusing to express remorse--Lurie finds shelter with his grown daughter and is exposed to a social reality that threatens more than his own sense of security. Winner of the Booker Prize, Coetzee's eighth novel employs spare, compelling prose to explore subtly the stuttering steps one man takes in a new world. (LJ 12/99) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
It may be that 200 pages have never worked so hard as they do in Coetzee's hands. He's a novelist of stunning precision and efficiency. Disgrace loses none of its fidelity to the social and political complexities of South Africa, even while it explores the troubling tensions between generations, sexes, and races. This is a novel of almost frightening perception from a writer of brutally clear prose.
Christian Science Monitor
Written in deceptively spare prose that lets an eerie story unfold, Disgrace is a revelatory, must-read portrayal of racial fortunes reversed.
There are few writers in English who equal this South African writer's hard intelligence. Few are as philosophical, or as familiar with the language and the mosed of post-structural and post-colonial theory...
The New Republic
From the Publisher
"Disgrace is not a hard or obscure book-it is, among other things, compulsively readable-but what it may well be is an authentically spiritual document, a lament for the soul of a disgraced century."-The New Yorker
"A subtly brilliant commentary on the nature and balance of power in his homeland…. Disgrace is a mini-opera without music by a writer at the top of his form."-Time"Mr. Coetzee, in prose lean yet simmering with feeling, has indeed achieved a lasting work: a novel as haunting and powerful as Albert Camus's The Stranger."- The Wall Street Journal
"A tough, sad, stunning novel."-Baltimore Sun
Read an Excerpt
FOR A MAN of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well. 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 at the door of No. 113 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, slides into bed beside him. 'Have you missed me?' she asks. 'I miss you all the time,' he replies. He strokes her honey-brown body, unmarked by the sun; he stretches her out, kisses her breasts; they make love.
Soraya is tall and slim, with long black hair and dark, liquid eyes. Technically he is old enough to be her father; but then, technically, one can be a father at twelve. He has been on her books for over a year; he finds her entirely satisfactory. In the desert of the week Thursday has become an oasis of luxe et volupté.
In bed Soraya is not effusive. Her temperament is in fact rather quiet, quiet and docile. In her general opinions she is surprisingly moralistic. She is offended by tourists who bare their breasts ('udders', she calls them) on public beaches; she thinks vagabonds should be rounded up and put to work sweeping the streets. How she reconciles her opinions with her line of business he does not ask.
Because he takes pleasure in her, because his pleasure is unfailing, an affection has grown up in him for her. To some degree, he believes, this affection is reciprocated. Affection may not be love, but it is at least its cousin. Given their unpromising beginnings, they have been lucky, the two of them: he to have found her, she to have found him.
His sentiments are, he is aware, complacent, even uxorious. Nevertheless he does not cease to hold to them.
For a ninety-minute session he pays her R400, of which half goes to Discreet Escorts. It seems a pity that Discreet Escorts should get so much. But they own No. 113 and other flats in Windsor Mansions; in a sense they own Soraya too, this part of her, this function.
He has toyed with the idea of asking her to see him in her own time. He would like to spend an evening with her, perhaps even a whole night. But not the morning after. He knows too much about himself to subject her to a morning after, when he will be cold, surly, impatient to be alone.
That is his temperament. His temperament is not going to change, he is too old for that. His temperament is fixed, set. The skull, followed by the temperament: the two hardest parts of the body.
Follow your temperament. It is not a philosophy, he would not dignify it with that name. It is a rule, like the Rule of St Benedict.
He is in good health, his mind is clear. By profession he is, or has been, a scholar, and scholarship still engages, intermittently, the core of him. He lives within his income, within his temperament, within his emotional means. Is he happy? By most measurements, yes, he believes he is. However, he has not forgotten the last chorus of Oedipus: Call no man happy until he is dead.
In the field of sex his temperament, though intense, has never been passionate. Were he to choose a totem, it would be the snake. Intercourse between Soraya and himself must be, he imagines, rather like the copulation of snakes: lengthy, absorbed, but rather abstract, rather dry, even at its hottest.
Is Soraya's totem the snake too? No doubt with other men she becomes another woman: la donna è mobile. Yet at the level of temperament her affinity with him can surely not be feigned.
Though by occupation she is a loose woman he trusts her, within limits. During their sessions he speaks to her with a certain freedom, even on occasion unburdens himself. She knows the facts of his life. She has heard the stories of his two marriages, knows about his daughter and his daughter's ups and downs. She knows many of his opinions.
Of her life outside Windsor Mansions Soraya reveals nothing. Soraya is not her real name, that he is sure of. There are signs she has borne a child, or children. It may be that she is not a professional at all. She may work for the agency only one or two afternoons a week, and for the rest live a respectable life in the suburbs, in Rylands or Athlone. That would be unusual for a Muslim, but all things are possible these days.
About his own job he says little, not wanting to bore her. He earns his living at the Cape Technical University, formerly Cape Town University College. Once a professor of modern languages, he has been, since Classics and Modern Languages were closed down as part of the great rationalization, adjunct professor of communications. Like all rationalized personnel, he is allowed to offer one special-field course a year, irrespective of enrolment, because that is good for morale. This year he is offering a course in the Romantic poets. For the rest he teaches Communications 101, 'Communication Skills', and Communications 201, 'Advanced Communication Skills'.
Although he devotes hours of each day to his new discipline, he finds its first premise, as enunciated in the Communications 101 handbook, preposterous: 'Human society has created language in order that we may communicate our thoughts, feelings and intentions to each other.' His own opinion, which he does not air, is that the origins of speech lie in song, and the origins of song in the need to fill out with sound the overlarge and rather empty human soul.
In the course of a career stretching back a quarter of a century he has published three books, none of which has caused a stir or even a ripple: the first on opera (Boito and the Faust Legend: The Genesis of Mefistofele), the second on vision as eros (The Vision of Richard of St Victor), the third on Wordsworth and history (Wordsworth and the Burden of the Past).
In the past few years he has been playing with the idea of a work on Byron. At first he had thought it would be another book, another critical opus. But all his sallies at writing it have bogged down in tedium. The truth is, he is tired of criticism, tired of prose measured by the yard. What he wants to write is music: Byron in Italy, a meditation on love between the sexes in the form of a chamber opera.
Through his mind, while he faces his Communications classes, flit phrases, tunes, fragments of song from the unwritten work. He has never been much of a teacher; in this transformed and, to his mind, emasculated institution of learning he is more out of place than ever. But then, so are other of his colleagues from the old days, burdened with upbringings inappropriate to the tasks they are set to perform; clerks in a post-religious age.
Because he has no respect for the material he teaches, he makes no impression on his students. They look through him when he speaks, forget his name. Their indifference galls him more than he will admit. Nevertheless he fulfils to the letter his obligations toward them, their parents, and the state. Month after month he sets, collects, reads, and annotates their assignments, correcting lapses in punctuation, spelling and usage, interrogating weak arguments, appending to each paper a brief, considered critique.
He continues to teach because it provides him with a livelihood; also because it teaches him humility, brings it home to him who he is in the world. The irony does not escape him: that the one who comes to teach learns the keenest of lessons, while those who come to learn learn nothing. It is a feature of his profession on which he does not remark to Soraya. He doubts there is an irony to match it in hers.
In the kitchen of the flat in Green Point there are a kettle, plastic cups, a jar of instant coffee, a bowl with sachets of sugar. The refrigerator holds a supply of bottled water. In the bathroom there is soap and a pile of towels, in the cupboard clean bedlinen. Soraya keeps her makeup in an overnight bag. A place of assignation, nothing more, functional, clean, well regulated.
The first time Soraya received him she wore vermilion lipstick and heavy eyeshadow. Not liking the stickiness of the makeup, he asked her to wipe it off. She obeyed, and has never worn it since. A ready learner, compliant, pliant.
He likes giving her presents. At New Year he gave her an enamelled bracelet, at Eid a little malachite heron that caught his eye in a curio shop. He enjoys her pleasure, which is quite unaffected.
It surprises him that ninety minutes a week of a woman's company are enough to make him happy, who used to think he needed a wife, a home, a marriage. His needs turn out to be quite light, after all, light and fleeting, like those of a butterfly. No emotion, or none but the deepest, the most unguessed-at: a ground bass of contentedness, like the hum of traffic that lulls the city-dweller to sleep, or like the silence of the night to countryfolk.
He thinks of Emma Bovary, coming home sated, glazen-eyed, from an afternoon of reckless fucking. So this is bliss!, says Emma, marvelling at herself in the mirror. So this is the bliss the poets speak of! Well, if poor ghostly Emma were ever to find her way to Cape Town, he would bring her along one Thursday afternoon to show her what bliss can be: a moderate bliss, a moderated bliss.
Then one Saturday morning everything changes. He is in the city on business; he is walking down St George's Street when his eyes fall on a slim figure ahead of him in the crowd. It is Soraya, unmistakably, flanked by two children, two boys. They are carrying parcels; they have been shopping.
He hesitates, then follows at a distance. They disappear into Captain Dorego's Fish Inn. The boys have Soraya's lustrous hair and dark eyes. They can only be her sons.
He walks on, turns back, passes Captain Dorego's a second time. The three are seated at a table in the window. For an instant, through the glass, Soraya's eyes meet his.
He has always been a man of the city, at home amid a flux of bodies where eros stalks and glances flash like arrows. But this glance between himself and Soraya he regrets at once.
At their rendezvous the next Thursday neither mentions the incident. Nonetheless, the memory hangs uneasily over them. He has no wish to upset what must be, for Soraya, a precarious double life. He is all for double lives, triple lives, lives lived in compartments. Indeed, he feels, if anything, greater tenderness for her. Your secret is safe with me, he would like to say.
But neither he nor she can put aside what has happened. The two little boys become presences between them, playing quiet as shadows in a corner of the room where their mother and the strange man couple. In Soraya's arms he becomes, fleetingly, their father: foster-father, step-father, shadow-father. Leaving her bed afterwards, he feels their eyes flicker over him covertly, curiously.
His thoughts turn, despite himself, to the other father, the real one. Does he have any inkling of what his wife is up to, or has he elected the bliss of ignorance?
He himself has no son. His childhood was spent in a family of women. As mother, aunts, sisters fell away, they were replaced in due course by mistresses, wives, a daughter. The company of women made of him a lover of women and, to an extent, a womanizer. With his height, his good bones, his olive skin, his flowing hair, he could always count on a degree of magnetism. If he looked at a woman in a certain way, with a certain intent, she would return his look, he could rely on that. That was how he lived; for years, for decades, that was the backbone of his life.
Then one day it all ended. Without warning his powers fled. Glances that would once have responded to his slid over, past, through him. Overnight he became a ghost. If he wanted a woman he had to learn to pursue her; often, in one way or another, to buy her.
He existed in an anxious flurry of promiscuity. He had affairs with the wives of colleagues; he picked up tourists in bars on the waterfront or at the Club Italia; he slept with whores.
His introduction to Soraya took place in a dim little sitting-room off the front office of Discreet Escorts, with Venetian blinds over the windows, pot plants in the corners, stale smoke hanging in the air. She was on their books under 'Exotic'. The photograph showed her with a red passion-flower in her hair and the faintest of lines at the corners of her eyes. The entry said 'Afternoons only'. That was what decided him: the promise of shuttered rooms, cool sheets, stolen hours.
From the beginning it was satisfactory, just what he wanted. A bull's eye. In a year he has not needed to go back to the agency.
Then the accident in St George's Street, and the strangeness that has followed. Though Soraya still keeps her appointments, he feels a growing coolness as she transforms herself into just another woman and him into just another client.
He has a shrewd idea of how prostitutes speak among themselves about the men who frequent them, the older men in particular. They tell stories, they laugh, but they shudder too, as one shudders at a cockroach in a washbasin in the middle of the night. Soon, daintily, maliciously, he will be shuddered over. It is a fate he cannot escape.
On the fourth Thursday after the incident, as he is leaving the apartment, Soraya makes the announcement he has been steeling himself against. 'My mother is ill. I'm going to take a break to look after her. I won't be here next week.'
'Will I see you the week after?'
'I'm not sure. It depends on how she gets on. You had better phone first.'
'I don't have a number.'
'Phone the agency. They'll know.'
He waits a few days, then telephones the agency. Soraya? Soraya has left us, says the man. No, we cannot put you in touch with her, that would be against house rules. Would you like an introduction to another of our hostesses? Lots of exotics to choose from - Malaysian, Thai, Chinese, you name it.
He spends an evening with another Soraya - Soraya has become, it seems, a popular nom de commerce - in a hotel room in Long Street. This one is no more than eighteen, unpractised, to his mind coarse. 'So what do you do?' she says as she slips off her clothes. 'Export-import,' he says. 'You don't say,' she says.
There is a new secretary in his department. He takes her to lunch at a restaurant a discreet distance from the campus and listens while, over shrimp salad, she complains about her sons' school. Drug-pedlars hang around the playing-fields, she says, and the police do nothing. For the past three years she and her husband have had their name on a list at the New Zealand consulate, to emigrate. 'You people had it easier. I mean, whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, at least you knew where you were.'
'You people?' he says. 'What people?'
'I mean your generation. Now people just pick and choose which laws they want to obey. It's anarchy. How can you bring up children when there's anarchy all around?'
Her name is Dawn. The second time he takes her out they stop at his house and have sex. It is a failure. Bucking and clawing, she works herself into a froth of excitement that in the end only repels him. He lends her a comb, drives her back to the campus.
After that he avoids her, taking care to skirt the office where she works. In return she gives him a hurt look, then snubs him.
He ought to give up, retire from the game. At what age, he wonders, did Origen castrate himself? Not the most graceful of solutions, but then ageing is not a graceful business. A clearing of the decks, at least, so that one can turn one's mind to the proper business of the old: preparing to die.
Might one approach a doctor and ask for it? A simple enough operation, surely: they do it to animals every day, and animals survive well enough, if one ignores a certain residue of sadness. Severing, tying off: with local anaesthetic and a steady hand and a modicum of phlegm one might even do it oneself, out of a textbook. A man on a chair snipping away at himself: an ugly sight, but no more ugly, from a certain point of view, than the same man exercising himself on the body of a woman.
There is still Soraya. He ought to close that chapter. Instead, he pays a detective agency to track her down. Within days he has her real name, her address, her telephone number. He telephones at nine in the morning, when the husband and children will be out. 'Soraya?' he says. 'This is David. How are you? When can I see you again?'
A long silence before she speaks. 'I don't know who you are,' she says. 'You are harassing me in my own house. I demand you will never phone me here again, never.'
Demand. She means command. Her shrillness surprises him: there has been no intimation of it before. But then, what should a predator expect when he intrudes into the vixen's nest, into the home of her cubs?
He puts down the telephone. A shadow of envy passes over him for the husband he has never seen.
From "Disgrace" by J.M. Coetzee. (c) November, 1999, Lilian Jackson Braun used by permission.