Disgrace takes place in post-apartheid South Africa, where the white, European sense of carefully policed order is challenged by millions of displaced, desperate Africans (as the author calls them, meaning black Africans) implacably demanding that they survive, by any means necessary.
At first the book echoed Lolita, but for this reader, its true siblings are Clockwork Orange and the movie District 19, which also takes place in South Africa.
David Lurie is a dessicated 58-year-old twice-divorced professor rattling on to disinterested students about literature, writing about the effete, doomed Byron. (Byron’s European style polygamy (his love affair with a married woman) contrasts with the more frank African polygamy. Coetzee doesn’t rail “Hypocrisy! Hypocrisy!” but proceeds more slyly. I would call it dry humor.)
Professor Lurie brazenly manipulates a young female student into an affair, acknowledging that he is helpless before a need which his reason cannot control. It might be called rape, but in the European legal sense, it is consensual, so he is not a criminal. He has offended the moral order and loses his job, his dignity, his friends, and his income…and doesn’t seem to mind that much.
He turns for meaning to his only child, Lucy, who is scratching out a living on a “smallholding” in the African boondocks. Her business partner is an inscrutable, relentless African named Petrus who slowly gains control over Lucy as brazenly and brutally as David controlled the young student. Petrus acquiesces to the enforcement of his power by third parties who act in his interest but not necessarily at his instruction. He is in the moral company of an outwardly jovial but deadly Mafia don.
When David sees Lucy threatened, he turns to the European solutions -– logic and the police, which are both flailing helplessly before the desperate struggle for survival that is going on in the territories they are trying to regulate. Petrus himself doesn’t so much disdain the police as ignore them. Unlike a Mafia don, he doesn’t bother even to bribe or intimidate them.
Since the story follows the streams of human nature to their source, it meanders unpredictably. Petrus is not invested in other peoples’ attempts to control the flow; the flailing outrage of David, the misbehavior of his minions, or the female animal passivity of David’s daughter. His only goal and his only care is that he establish hegemony over his small piece of land. He creates something more precious than order — security and thus survival.
Coetzee has “killed his darlings” and the writing style is spare and clear. He does not clothe his truths in explanation or excuse. Behind every word the reader can sense the implacable tread of life itself moving warily, silently, away from oblivion. By any means necessary.
M. Coetzee has won the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Booker Prize.