Coetzee's 'Disgrace' : collecting debts

February 06, 2000|By Harry Merritt | Harry Merritt,Sun Staff

"Disgrace," by J.M. Coetzee. Viking. 220 pages. $23.95.

When David Lurie, an English literature professor, pressures one of his female students into a sexual relationship she does not want, his life begins to unravel.

The student charges him with harassment and David, 52, is forced to resign, his reputation in ruins.

That predicament opens "Disgrace," a tough, sad, stunning novel by J.M. Coetzee, set in post-apartheid South Africa. "Disgrace" won the 1999 Booker Prize, making Coetzee, a white South African, the only two-time winner of Britain's highest literary honor.

Leaving Cape Town after his resignation, David goes to see Lucy, his adult daughter, who has a small farm in the remote Eastern Cape region where she boards dogs and grows produce for the local farmers' market.

Lucy works her land in awkward association with Petrus, a grizzled African who used to clean Lucy's dog cages. Now, in the new South Africa, Petrus is establishing himself as a landowner, in fact, acquiring some of Lucy's acreage and eyeing the rest.

Not long after David arrives, three men invade Lucy's compound. They steal David's car and other valuables, beat and torture him, and shoot all the dogs but one. The men also rape Lucy.

The robbery gets reported to the police; the rape does not, even though most people in the community know about them. Lucy is the one who won't discuss them.

Therein lies the conundrum of "Disgrace," and what makes the book so provocative and memorable.

David cannot fathom Lucy's seeming indifference. David -- who was made to pay for his own transgressions with another man's daughter -- wants his daughter's assailants caught and punished.

He suspects that Petrus, who was not around when Lucy was attacked, knew at least one of the men and is covering for him. Further, he believes that the men were not robbers so much as rapists, intent on ruining a white woman with property and driving her out in disgrace.

Coetzee, long a critic of apartheid, uses Lucy's plight to show just how different today's South Africa has become. The white minority does not run things anymore, and those whites like Lucy who wish to stay in remote places find they must accommodate themselves to the new order. For Lucy, that means keeping her silence about the rape, blending in rather than making waves, seeking protection from Petrus, struggling to hang on to the only home she knows.

At length Lucy does speak of the attack, as David urges her to let go of her farm and head for safety. She tells him she cannot leave, and wonders whether what she endured is the price she has to pay for staying on.

Perhaps, she tells her father, the rapists "see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying? Perhaps that is what they tell themselves."

Harry Merritt is an editor on The Sun's city desk. He worked previously at the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, where he edited award-winning series, directed political coverage and was the paper's writing coach.

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