2007-06-03

Disgrace
J.M. Coetzee
Secker & Warburg, 1999

"In his sober, searing and even cynical little book "Disgrace," J.M. Coetzee tells us something we all suspect and fear -- that political change can do almost nothing to eliminate human misery. What it can do, he suggests, is reorder it a little and half-accidentally introduce a few new varieties. This view should not surprise any of the great South African novelist's readers. In his early-1980s masterpieces "Waiting for the Barbarians" and "Life & Times of Michael K" -- indeed, in all of his work -- political and historical forces blow through the lives of individuals like nasty weather systems, bringing with them a destruction that is all the more cruel for being impersonal. "Disgrace" is Coetzee's first book to deal explicitly with post-apartheid South Africa, and the picture it paints is a cheerless one that will comfort no one, no matter what race, nationality or viewpoint. "Disgrace" was awarded the Booker Prize, and it has undeniable echoes of "Michael K," Coetzee's 1983 Booker winner. In both books a man is broken down almost to nothing before he finds some tiny measure of redemption in his forced acceptance of the realities of life and death. But Professor David Lurie, the protagonist of "Disgrace," has farther to fall than Michael K, an unsophisticated Cape Town gardener. And the clarity David comes to at the end grows largely from his accepting an ever-increasing portion of pain. "One gets used to things getting harder; one ceases to be surprised that what used to be as hard as hard can be grows harder yet," he reflects. That sentence also describes Coetzee's notion of life in the new South Africa, where, as he portrays it, brutal tyranny has been replaced by brutal anarchy."

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