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From Barnes & NobleThe 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more, it is at heart a finely tuned and often bleak portrayal of one man who realizes that he has become outmoded and outdated.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 dynamics—between men and women, whites and blacks, even humans and dogs—and 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 symbolism—including that of his beloved Romantics—often 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-handed—partly thanks to a brilliant subplot of Lurie's efforts to write an opera based on Byron—is 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.