John Coetzee is notoriously reticent.The testimony of this lies in the nature of his Nobel lecture,a reading from a chapter of one of his novels instead of a sweeping personal statement.It is said that he rarely smiles and almost never appears in public.This reticence is evident in his work, in the quiet shame of his protagonist David Lurie and in the woe begotten landscape of the novel 'Disgrace'.
'Disgrace' takes place in post-apartheid South Africa. The roles of slave and master have been reversed and the land groans from the weight of the unspoken racism that still persists.David Lurie,a rather ineffective professor of romantic literature, is twice divorced and has no future hopes of a stable relationship with a woman. He is content with a series of one night stands with an 'exotic' escort named Soraya.After Soraya disappears,he takes a keen interest in young student named Melanie. He invites her over to his apartment for dinner.One thing leads to another and, after what seems like a consensual affair, he finds himself mired in controversy. He is accused of sexual harassment and is given the option to either apologize in public or resign.He chooses to resign.
He moves in with his daughter Lucy,a farmer in a remote place.He tries to accustom himself to a pastoral existence; helping his daughter with the farm,volunteering at an animal welfare center and working on an opera about Byron.Lucy appears awkward,unfeminine and quite unlike David Lurie's women.He ponders over the minuteness of her world,the simplicity of her existence and its lack of urgency.This existence is interrupted by an attack by a group of miscreants.Lurie suffers minor burns while Lucy is subject to despicable atrocities that are only implied and never mentioned.The incident leaves David scarred; he is confounded by Lucy's tight lipped denial,the silent acquiescence of all that is meted out to her and a complete surrender to the local anarchy that is now her fate.
David realizes,slowly, that his relationship with his daughter is strained beyond redemption.He throws himself at his work at the animal welfare center;developing an unlikely kinship with Bev Shaw,a woman who almost single handedly runs the center.David doesn't understand Bev Shaw and her way with animals. She has taken it upon herself to put unwanted animals to sleep, 'because someone has to do it'. David offers to take corpses of dead dogs to the incinerator. This activity becomes almost routine, like hard labor. This daily routine, Lucy's condition, and the endless drudgery of a standstill existence form the outline of his penance,his disgrace.
Coetzee writes with grit and cynicism.The cloud of impending doom looms over our heads from the start. Coetzee's Lurie stands out in his attempt to question the anarchy of this troubled land.His trials compel him to face his deeds and the burden of his incapacity.The only thing fleeting in the midst of all this perennial doom is the existence of the people in its vicinity.