May 2000: J.M. Coetzee
Just occasionally, a work of literature offers its readers a clearer, deeper understanding of the opaque events being reported in the press and on TV, whose shadowed truths the half-light of journalism fails to illumine. E.M. Forster's A Passage to India taught us that the great public quarrels of history can make it impossible for individuals to construct a private peace. History forbids the friendship between the Englishman Fielding and the Indian doctor, Aziz. 'Not yet, not yet,' Aziz demurs. Not while imperialism's great injustice stands between us. Not until India is free.
After World War II, many German poets and novelists felt that their language had been reduced to rubble by Nazism, as thoroughly as the bomb-devastated cities. The 'rubble literature' they created sought to rebuild German writing brick by brick.
Now, as the aftermath of Empire is acted out on the white-owned farmland of Zimbabwe while Kenya and South Africa watch with trepidation, J.M. Coetzee's acclaimed fiction Disgrace is proposed as another such age-defining work, a lens through which we can see more clearly much that was murky before. Disgrace is the story of David Lurie, a white professor who loses his job after sexual harassment charges are laid against him by a female student with whom he has had a joyless series of sexual encounters. Lurie goes to stay with his daughter Lucy on her remote smallholding, where they are violently attacked by a group of black men. The consequences of this attack profoundly shake Lurie, darkening his view on the world.
There is something in Disgrace that harks back both to the Fosterian vision of the Indian struggle for independence, and to the Germans' rubble literature. In Lucy's apparent readiness to accept her rape as her assailants' way of working out on her body the necessary [end of page 338] revenges of history, we hear a much harsher, more discordant echo of Dr Aziz's 'not yet'. And Lurie believes (like, one must conclude, his creator) that the English language is no longer capable of expressing the Southern African reality.
The bone-hard language Coetzee has found for his book has been much admired, as has the unflinchingness of his vision. The book unquestionably fulfils the first requirement for a great novel: it powerfully creates a dystopia that adds to the sum total of the imagined worlds at our disposal, and by doing so, increases what it is possible for us to think. Reading about Lurie and Lucy on their dangerous, isolated patch of land, we can more readily grasp the condition of those white farmers in Zimbabwe, as history comes calling for its revenge. Like the Byronic Lucifer - in whose name both 'Lurie' and 'Lucy' can be found - Coetzee's protagonist 'acts on impulse, and the source of his impulses is dark to him'. He has, perhaps, a 'mad heart', and believes in something he calls 'the rights of desire'. This makes him sound passionate, but in fact he's cold and abstracted to an almost somnambulist degree.
The cold detachment, which also permeates the novel's prose, is the problem. 'Rubble literature' didn't just strip language to its bones. It put new flesh on those bones, perhaps because its practitioners retained a belief in, even a love for that language, and for the culture in which their renewed language was to flower. lacking that loving belief, the discourse of Disgrace sounds heartless, and all its intelligence cannot fill up the hole.
To act on impulses whose source one claims not to understand, to justify one's plunges at women by one's 'rights of desire', is to make a virtue of one's psychological and moral lacunae. For a character to justify himself by claiming not to understand his motives is one thing; for the novelist to collude in that justification is quite another.
Nobody in Disgrace understands anyone else. Lurie does not understand Melanie, the student he seduces, nor she him. He doesn't understand Lucy, his own daughter, and she finds his deeds and his 'case' for his actions beyond her. He doesn't understand himself at the beginning, nor does he get any wisdom by the novel's end.
Interracial relations are conducted at the same level of ignorance. [End of page 339] The whites don't understand the blacks and the blacks aren't interested in understanding the whites. Not one of the novel's black characters - not Petrus the 'gardener and dog-man' who works with Lucy, and certainly not the gang of assailants - is developed into a living, breathing character. Petrus comes closest, but his motives remain enigmatic and his presence grows more menacing as the novel proceeds. To the novel's whites, its black inhabitants are essentially a threat - a threat justified by history. Because whites have historically oppressed blacks, it's being suggested, we must now accept that blacks will oppress whites. An eye for an eye, and so the whole world goes blind.
This, then, is the novel's acclaimed revelatory vision: one of a society of conflicting incomprehensions, driven by the absolutes of history. Certainly it's coherent enough - coherent in its privileging of incoherence, striving to make of its blindness a sort of metaphorical insight.
When a writer's created beings lack understanding, it becomes the writer's task to provide the reader with the insight lacked by the characters. If he does not, his work will not shine a light upon darkness, but merely become a part of the darkness it describes. This, alas, is the weakness of Disgrace. It doesn't, finally, shed enough new light on the news. But the news does add a bit to our understanding of the book.
Rushdie, Salman. Step across this line. Collected non-fiction 1992-2002. London: Vintage, 2003. 338-40.