Monday, February 1, 2010

A South African story

Disgrace: A Novel"For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well." Thus begins J.M. Coetze's Disgrace, which I had read over the weekend. Coetze is the 2003 Nobel Laureate for Literature.

David Lurie is a professor of Romantic poetry at Cape Technical University, twice divorced, and spends his Thursday afternoons with prostitutes—one in particular, a woman named Soraya. But one day he sees her with her two sons, walking down the street. Things then begin to get awkward, and they stop seeing each other.

The professor thinks he lives a typical life. He teaches his courses dutifully but without much passion. He lives within his means. He's not ecstatic; he's not unhappy either.

A student, Melanie Isaacs, comes along. They have an affair. And when Melanie's parents and boyfriend pressure her into filing a complaint for sexual harassment, Lurie loses his job and retreats to the country side, in Salem, on the Grahamstown-Kenton Road in the Eastern Cape. Lurie's daughter, Lucy, lives there.

Lucy lives an entirely different life altogether—a simpler one, if one may call it. She tends her animals and works at her garden. To keep himself occupied, he helps take care of the dogs, and he assists Bev Shaw in the Animal Welfare League euthanize animals.

But the book really is a story about complicated racial complexities of South Africa. One day three men barge into Lucy's home and rape his daughter. His head has been knocked off, and he cannot help his daughter. The men steal his car and leave.

The last time I've encountered South Africa was Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom. Disgrace is probably the fictional version. It's a book about power struggles—between the black man and the white man—but this theme emerges subtly.

J. M. Coetze writes in simple but weighty sentences that need a lot of processing. I have to read this book again.

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