At first glance, Disgrace appears a slim book telling a simple story of a South African university professor who, after a misguided affair with a student, retreats to his daughter's house in the country where he finds himself the victim of a ferocious attack. The prose seems sparse and uncomplicated, even matter-of-fact. However, read on a bit further and the complexities behind the story start to unfold; it's soon clear that, given the time and the place, the novel cannot be read simply as an account of a personal tragedy. As Lucy herself says, 'This place being South Africa' lends a new context to events.
Disgrace is a novel that has aroused much discussion since its publication in 1999. Some see it as portraying a bleak view of a post-apartheid South Africa that has descended into violence. Some factions within the African National Congress criticised the book, claiming it painted a negative view of South Africa as a land of rape; this criticism seemed to be echoed by the esteemed South African novelist, Nadine Gordimer, when she questioned Coetzee's version of truth in the novel. On the other side of the fence, some saw the tale as a straightforward allegory of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, set up in South Africa to provide 'closure' between the victims and the perpetrators of Apartheid. Others claimed that, while the novel did show a less than united South Africa, it was a realistic portrayal, showing the country the way it was rather than the way some wished it to be. The latter is an argument not without merit. While Coetzee's depiction of South Africa might not be the warm and friendly place we all hoped for when Apartheid ended, the high crime rates and the propensity to violence give credence to his assessment.
However to categorise the book as a simple damnation of South Africa, new and old, or a pitiless description of the aftershock from Apartheid, is to do it a disservice. Disgrace also examines what it means to be human, looking at the differences between us and the animals, between civilisation and savagery, and it explores how the language of power has changed over the centuries. The novel makes extensive reference to the people and events that shaped and interpreted human history, from Classical times through the era of Romanticism to the present day. Coetzee seems to want to make the point that, while the external stimuli may have changed, the troughs and peaks of human existence remain the same.
In the character of David we are presented with a middle-aged man who, while first displaying the arrogance of the educated, ends the novel still trying to understand the secrets of his soul. Through his feelings towards Soraya, and then his attraction to Melanie, the reader senses him wrestle with the onset of age and his anticipated impotence. This impotence manifests itself when he is unable to do anything to prevent the attack on Lucy, or on himself. All his worldly knowledge proves useless when confronted with raw violence and, however articulate he is, he doesn't have the ability to communicate with the thugs who shatter his world. By the end of the book, it is perhaps somewhat telling that the greatest connection he can make to another living being is to the dumb dog condemned to execution; the kind of animal he readily dismissed as less than human, possessing no soul, earlier in the story.
David's plight illustrates the changing dynamics of power within South Africa, and raises some interesting questions about morality along the way. For example, while he sees the rape of his daughter as the most extreme kind of attack, he differentiates it completely from his own treatment of Melanie. This may have a parallel in the violence committed in the name of Apartheid and the violence committed by some sections of the black community, perhaps as a response to apartheid. The treatment of animals in the novel, particularly dogs, again invites us to draw further parallels with the human experience in South Africa. Does the treatment of dogs somehow equate to the treatment of humans in South Africa?
Disgrace is a novel which raises lots of questions without giving definitive answers. In other words, it's a book which can be interpreted in many ways. Even the title itself has come under scrutiny. Whose disgrace does it refer to: David's for his treatment of Melanie; Lucy's for the attack; the white population who collaborated with the Apartheid regime; or the country as a whole? The answer probably lies in a combination of them all.
Some see hope in the final pages of the book, when David abandons the city trappings of Cape Town for a simple life amongst the condemned dogs in the middle of nowhere. Others see it as surrender: David not only relinquishes power, but possibility too. Whatever the interpretation, it is certain Disgrace will continue to be debated for a long time into the future.
In 2006, Disgrace was voted the best novel of the past 25 years by a panel of literary luminaries. Find out why here.