"Disgrace", by J.M. Coetzee

(actualisé le ) by Ray

A 52-year-old professor of literature gets into big trouble by having intimate relations with one of his female students. So he abandons his university life in Cape Town to settle in for a while with his ex-hippy daughter on a tiny homestead in the wilds of Eastern Cape province, where he helps out with the chores and thinks about writing an opera about Byron. And where he learns about how the balance of social power is changing in rural, post-apartheid South Africa.

As we have come to expect from Coetzee, major themes are addressed, in a clear, staightforward yet elegant way where exactly the right word is always used and the right tone is always struck. The expressiveness and preciseness of Coetzee’s prose adds weight and interest to the themes: sexual relations between professors and students, the pressure for moral conformity in an intellectual milieu, race and property relations in the new South Africa, father-daughter relationships when life-paths part.

I nevertheless felt a certain reluctance to follow Coetzee’s implicit drive towards generalization, to adhere to the underlying suggestion that the events presented are paraboles that characterize today’s world in general and today’s South Africa in particular. The same reluctance that I felt with his earlier work Waiting for the Barbarians, which presented the title theme is a much less convincing way than Cavafy’s great poem of the same name (scandalously uncredited in Coetzee’s book) managed to do in only 34 lines.

Although we can understand why the protagonists behave as they do, thanks to the subtle and effective way their attitudes, their Weltanshauung, their way of looking on the world, are portrayed, the link with a larger, wider significance is nevertheless, for me, tenuous at best. At 52 is a man really seen by all and sundry in modern urban SA to be an old man? If that is not credible for the reader, then much of the impact of the central theme is lost. And would a 30ish white woman living on an isolated farm first lock up her Doberman guard dogs when accosted by a group of unknown labourers? If not, then the significance of the events that follow - symbolizing the dilemma of whites in modern South African - is necessarily diminished.

This is nevertheless an ambitious, interesting book written with style by one of the best writers in the language - can one really ask for more?

Click here to read a selection of texts from this novel.

Vintage, 220 pages, $19.95 CDN