Tuesday, October 14, 2008

On Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

When the emotions and feelings are complex, words do a bad job at describing them, for they can more often than not, convey only so much. Communication of deep hurt, intense passion, terrible ache and nagging doubts is difficult and somehow once communicated leave a sense of misrepresentation and falsity. When race is involved, the combination is fearsome and troublesome to the extreme. The reader's sympathy, the sense of right or wrong and the whole consequent question of moral triumph gets mixed up.

Disgrace with its rare prose treads a fine balance and leaves many pertinent questions unanswered.

Words are juxtaposed to convey maximum impact:

"Her temperament is in fact rather quiet, quiet and docile."

"A ready learner, compliant, pliant."

"He recognizes a statement of independence, considered, purposeful."

Such construction heightens the understanding and enables splendid characterization.

David Lurie, a middle-aged twice divorced teacher of Romantic poetry in the technical University of Cape Town, feels that "A woman's beauty does not belong to her alone. It is part of the bounty she brings to the World. She has a duty to share it". In his own words, on "an ungovernable impulse" he has an affair with a student, and is asked to resign.

Finding himself in the country, to which he discovers that he is ill-suited, he is forced to move in with his daughter, Lucy, who lives in a farm assisted by Petrus ("tall and weathered" is David's first impression) who, as father and daughter discover later, is a villain.

David understands slowly that his daughter is determined and quite happy in her own way. Out of the blue, three men ruthlessly attack them - try to burn David and rape Lucy. When he tries to reason with his daughter by suggesting that her continuing to stay there will be an invitation for them to return, her reply is shocking:

"What if that is the price one has to pay for staying on? Perhaps that is how they look at it; perhaps that is how I should look at it too. They see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors,tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying? Perhaps that is what they tell themselves." After reading this bit, I was stunned for a few minutes. If so much can be conveyed in so frugal a prose, then...

David's gradual reconciliation to his "disgrace" is a continuing theme thereafter. He assists his daughter's woman friend in animal welfare and even starts to transport the bodies of dead dogs till the incinerator and feels "betrayed" if he isn't able to do it .

There are some sentences that are short, but leave an impression so profound that I think I'll remember them for life.

Sample this:

David tries to work on a book about Byron. In a letter, Byron says "I have always looked to thirty as the barrier to any real or fierce delight in the passions". David remembering that feels "How brief the summer, before the autumn and then the winter!"

Byron does not provide any relief and again he goes back to nursing dogs and cats near his daughter . Towards the end of the novel, David is powerless to influence his daughter to change her mind. That is best captured in:

"He seems to be spending a lot of time sighing. Regret: a regrettable note on which to go out."

"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".

The political scene is painted almost in a quiet manner with poignancy, the only weapon showing the reader, the shift in the balance of power. A very disturbing, unputdownable, absorbing read that I'd rate as one of the best I have come across in terms of the subject and its handling. The Booker here is little prize for writing of such fine quality and spellbinding effect.

5 comments:

The Layman said...

your reviews are so compelling man..
be it movies, books, whatever :-)

The first thing that comes to my mind after reading your reviews is..'I should watch this movie'..or 'read this book' (which I don't always do).

A splendid (beautiful?) review.

The Layman said...

Hey just a thought..
Ever contemplated writing fiction?

shiva said...

@the Layman:

thanks, yes, of course its a dream :)

The Layman said...

then why not start right away.. :-)
You already have a world wide famous publisher..

Blogger :-)

Shefali K. said...

Honestly, I never liked the book Disgrace. I found it rather very un-narrative, I mean the flow of the book seemed halting. I apparently also found it disgusting ! It was my first and last Coetzee.

Disturbing and Shocking - yes it was! You wanted to read and not read the book after every chapter.