Saturday 15 February 2014

Cutting Chai with Bhawana Somaaya - Day 286

Disgrace is powerful and compelling 

Disgrace is Nobel Laureate Coetzee's first book to deal explicitly with post-apartheid South Africa.

What makes the book interesting is the contrast between the urban life of an older-generation white male in Cape Town and the rural life where suffering, death and brutality are daily occurrences. The book epitomizes South Africa today and comments on gender and racial discrimination.

It tells the story of an English professor David Lurie, who seduces a confused interracial student. On the surface it seems like a story about his relationships with women, but in fact Disgrace is a story about what these relationships reveal about the man.

The opening sentence of the book describes Lurie as 52, divorced and somebody who has solved the problem of sex rather well. Lurie obtains satisfaction from weekly visits to the same prostitute, a woman he knows as Soraya, but it's an arrangement that soon falls apart. Just another whore will not do for him, so he seduces a reluctant student, Melanie Isaacs.  It is an awkward relationship as Melanie appears unsure of what she wants. She is unequipped to deal with the professor's advances and not entirely adverse to the flattering attention but she is a reluctant participant, as was Soraya.

Lurie fails to judge the parameters of the permissible in a relationship probably because all he only knows to ask rather demand sex, even though what he really craves from the relationships is compassion. He is a man of extreme logic and confidence and when charged with sexual harassment chooses not to defend himself. He pleads guilty but expresses no remorse. Lurie forces them to impose the harshest punishment on him and, leaves the university in utter disgrace.       

All the characters live in a world uncomfortably in transition. Aging Lurie, who can now expect no better than to bed the woman who puts animals to sleep feels sorry for him when he says, “Let me not forget this day…After the sweet young flesh of Melanie Isaacs, this is what I have come to. This is what I will have to get used to, this and even less’

Coetzee’s writing is powerful and compelling though not always a productive read. The voices (there is a lot of dialogue) and descriptions sharp and true. The book moves forward somewhat uncertainly, but this mirrors the hero’s current mind frame. The author does not impose an easy resolution, and the uncertainty is a part of the attraction. Disgrace is a troubling work, of troubled people in troubled times that are ill-equipped and unwilling to face the new realities of post-apartheid South Africa.

Bhawana Somaaya/ @bhawanasomaaya

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