‘The personal life is dead,’ Pasternak wrote in Doctor Zhivago – ‘history has killed it.’ In J.M. Coetzee’s new novel, Disgrace, which is set in a violent post-apartheid South Africa, David Lurie, a Cape Town academic, reaches a similar conclusion when his daughter Lucy is gang-raped by three black men at her isolated homestead in the Eastern Cape. ‘But why did they hate me so?’ Lucy asks. ‘I had never set eyes on them.’ ‘It was history speaking through them,’ her father replies. ‘A history of wrong. Think of it that way, if it helps. It may have seemed personal, but it wasn’t.’ Lucy decides not to press charges, believing that this rape, in the South African context, is not ‘a public matter’. In the face of irresistible historical change – the collapse of a corrupt order – the claims of the individual are necessarily of secondary importance, even irrelevant. Pasternak, of course, did not believe this. Does Coetzee?
J.M. Coetzee’s reputation as one of the most important writers working in South Africa is now well established. His writing offers a Post-Modern engagement with a colossal theme: the impact, in Africa and elsewhere, of an expansionist Western political philosophy and the process of its subsequent dissolution, which raises the wider issue of the cultural authority to which fiction written within the Western tradition can lay claim. Coetzee is unique among South African novelists working in English. He is a South African of Western descent whose novels are distinguished by a vigorous interest in the terms of their own creation. From ‘The Vietnam Project’ and ‘The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee’ in Dusklands (1974), twin satires on the civilising mythologies underpinning US intervention in Vietnam and Boer expansion into the African interior in 1760, through the spare, fable-like narratives of In the Heart of the Country (1977), Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) and Life and Times of Michael K (1983), to the confessional monologue of Age of Iron (1990) and the literary-historical pastiches of Foe (1986) and The Master of Petersburg (1994), Coetzee’s approach has been varied, his idiom pliable. He has written in the voice of a repressed Afrikaner spinster living on the platteland, of a Boer frontiersman, of an elderly woman dying of cancer in contemporary suburban Johannesburg, and of an 18th-century castaway. Virtuosity is not the point, however. Coetzee aims to question the status and the structures of colonial and post-colonial power from as many vantage points as possible. In Foe and The Master of Petersburg, written around imaginary episodes in the lives of Defoe and Dostoevsky, this interrogation is further refined into an examination of the nature of authorship and of the writer’s authority over his subject. Coetzee’s own style is sometimes parodic, sometimes allegorical. He has made free use of destabilising narrative devices such as mock appendices and fake forewords, and has a marked taste for open-endedness, sudden authorial interventions and abrupt truncations. He is, in other words, preoccupied with narrative voice and form, with the means by which the fictional illusion is created and by which it can be disrupted.
For the South African novelist writing about the overwhelming internal pressures exerted on South African society by apartheid, and the wider legacy of colonialism, form has always been problematic. How should the volatile, explosive history of South Africa, a history in the making, be represented in fiction without lapsing into the impoverished aesthetic of merely political writing? The difficulty is that fiction necessarily deals with stories, and stories, as Coetzee once explained in an interview, ‘are defined by their irresponsibility: they are, in the judgment of Swift’s Houynhnhms, “that which is not”’. How is the novelist supposed to confine himself to reportage when ‘the feel of fiction is one of freedom, of irresponsibility, or better, of responsibility toward writing something that has not yet emerged’? On the other hand, how can an author operating in a highly politicised culture write such stories – write fiction, in short – without seeming to duck the issue? Most English-language prose writers in South Africa, from Olive Schreiner through Nadine Gordimer and André Brink to Mongane Serote, have tried to reconcile these conflicting claims, the claims of history and fiction, by writing in the realist mode.
When Coetzee began to write, in the Seventies, he was one of the first South African novelists to act on the realisation that narrative is not ideologically neutral, but a product of history, impregnated with all sorts of subliminal cultural nuances. Realism, with its time-honoured ways of putting across a single point of view – the omniscient narrator, an implied author who is always authoritative, a reassuring degree of closure and so on – is the narrative mode most strongly identified with the Western novel. Coetzee’s metafictions follow from the insight that a post-colonial novel aiming to make a point about the cultural arrogance of the coloniser cannot use realism as the vehicle for its critique without being undermined by its failure to challenge the conventions of the tradition it wishes to call into question.
This statement should perhaps be qualified. Gordimer’s preference for realism as a narrative form is a sophisticated corollary of her belief that the primary role of the South African writer is truthfully to record or reflect. Writing is, for Gordimer, essentially a matter of representation. In the process, what she calls ‘creative self-absorption’ must always be checked by ‘conscionable awareness’. Coetzee, however, doubts that the sort of literal reflection offered by Gordimer and writers like her tells us anything more real, or more truthful, than a more obviously imaginative approach would. His expressed preference is for a novel that ‘operates in terms of its own procedures and issues in its own conclusions, not one that operates in terms of the procedures of history and eventuates in conclusions that are checkable by history (as a child’s schoolwork is checked by a schoolmistress)’. It is this writerly stress in his fiction that has attracted criticism from other South African writers, such as Gordimer and Stephen Watson. Watson has objected that Coetzee’s concern with textuality means that his work is ‘little more than an artfully constructed void’, while Gordimer has identified as a weakness what she calls his ‘revulsion against all political and revolutionary solutions’.
The argument is complicated by the fact that Coetzee has published a substantial body of criticism, including reviews and essays on censorship, dissent, linguistics and literary culture in South Africa – and more recently, in The Lives of Animals, on the philosophies of community invoked in the debate on animal rights. Coetzee is a writer’s writer, a subtle theorist who is also in the business of producing fiction; a novelist who is both a critic and a linguist. Can such a writer, a self-conscious Post-Modernist, have anything engaging to say about the moral choices thrown up in the transitional societies which are the subject of his fiction? More narrowly, can he have anything engaging to say about the moral choices that are part of everyday life in post-apartheid South Africa? As it turns out, the answer is yes.
Disgrace is the best novel Coetzee has written. It is a chilling, spare book, the work of a mature writer who has refined his textual obsessions to produce an exact, effective prose and condensed his thematic concern with authority into a deceptively simple story of family life. Half campus novel, half anti-pastoral, it begins quietly enough in Cape Town. Five years or so have passed since the new Government took power. The narrative voice is that of 52-year-old David Lurie, who teaches communications at the Technical University, where his real subject, modern languages, has been abolished as part of a nationwide rationalisation of educational resources. Lurie is still allowed to run a single course on the Romantic poets, but he is a poor communicator working with poor material: students who are the typical products of a ‘post-Christian, post-historical, post-literate’ South African education, lacking a basic grounding in the context and sources of the literature which they are studying. While going through the motions of teaching them, Lurie toys with the idea of writing a chamber opera about Byron’s love affair with the 19-year-old Teresa Guiccioli, which the poet began in Italy in 1819 after being ostracised in England for his scandalous relationship with his half-sister, Augusta. Lurie, too, has Byronic good looks and a Byronic sexual appetite, specifically a taste for ‘exotic’ women, which he satisfies by helping himself to sex with a coloured prostitute who works under the name of Soraya, and then (after she cuts their meetings short) with a pretty, dark-haired young woman in his class called Melanie, whom he nicknames Meláni, ‘the dark one’.
Lurie is described as having sex with Melanie some three or four times, during which she remains inert, barely co-operative. Shortly afterwards, she charges him with harassment. Hauled up before an investigating committee, he pleads guilty but refuses to do so in the breast-beating, confessional way demanded of him and is dismissed. At this point the scene shifts from the Western Cape to the Eastern, from Cape Town to ‘old Kaffraria’, where the disgraced Lurie joins his daughter in Salem. Lucy is a subsistence farmer. She sells her produce on a market stall in nearby Grahamstown and runs a kennels on the side, in an implicit retreat from her father’s way of life and his values. Their relationship is troubled. She is a large, plain girl, the sort of woman whom Lurie would immediately dismiss on physical grounds, and a lesbian. Later, we remember that she shares her name with a virgin-martyr. She is occasionally helped in her work by a black farmer called Petrus, whose property abuts her own and who is rapidly consolidating his own recently won independence as a landowner. Now and then, Lurie works for Petrus, relishing the ‘historical piquancy’ of their role reversal. He also assists reluctantly at the local animal clinic run by Bev Shaw, whom he describes as a ‘remarkably unattractive’ middle-aged woman.
The rape is committed by three black strangers, two men and a boy, who force their way into Lucy’s house one afternoon. They also shoot her kennelled dogs, then douse Lurie with methylated spirits, set him alight and drive off in his car. Father and daughter survive the attack and Lurie reflects on their good fortune:
Count yourself lucky to have escaped with your life. Count yourself lucky not to be a prisoner in the car at this moment, speeding away, or at the bottom of a donga with a bullet in your head. Count Lucy lucky too. Above all Lucy.
A risk to own anything: a car, a pair of shoes, a packet of cigarettes. Not enough to go around, not enough cars, shoes, cigarettes. Too many people, too few things. What there is must go into circulation, so that everyone can have a chance to be happy for a day. That is the theory; hold to the theory and to the comforts of theory. Not human evil, just a vast circulatory system, to whose workings pity and terror are irrelevant. That is how one must see life in this country: in its schematic aspect. Otherwise one could go mad. Cars, shoes; women too. There must be some niche in the system for women and what happens to them.
One of the rapists – the young boy, whose name is Pollux – is related to Petrus and has recently become a member of his household. Petrus himself was suspiciously absent on the afternoon of the rape and refuses to comment on it. Realising that she is at risk of another attack, but resisting what seems increasingly like a plot by Petrus and his family to force her off her land, Lucy does not press charges, clinging instead to ‘the comforts of theory’: what if rape 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.’ When she discovers that she is pregnant as a result of the rape she signs her property over to Petrus, agreeing to become his mistress in return for his protection. She will start again on this new footing, having paid her debt, ‘with no cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity’ – with nothing that can be taken away. ‘Like a dog,’ her father concludes. ‘Yes,’ Lucy replies, ‘like a dog.’
Lurie is shaken by his daughter’s self-dispossession, the more so because he, too, has very few resources left. His relationship with Lucy is breaking down. He realises that he will never finish his opera about Byron, which appears more and more irrelevant in the South African context. His face has been destroyed, signalling the end of his sexual identity. No longer attractive, and equipped by the rape with a sickening new appreciation of the ways in which women can be used by men, he submits to a self-abasement not unlike that of his daughter by having a relationship with Bev Shaw, whom he does not desire. He also submits completely to the work at the animal clinic, where he puts down unwanted and homeless dogs, becoming emotionally attached to one crippled dog in particular. The final scene of the novel shows Lurie about to surrender this dog, bearing it ‘like a lamb’ to the killing table.
In spite of its naturalistic setting, the schematic organisation of Disgrace works against a ‘realistic’ reading – in Coetzee’s phrase, it operates in terms of ‘its own paradigms and myths’. Of these, the most powerful are ones that Coetzee has used before to describe the colonial situation: the unnatural parent-child and male-female bonds, in which the normal ties of affection are fraying or already severed. The key elements in Disgrace – a sexually predatory father and an isolated, self-sufficient daughter who is raped by a black neighbour and submits to further sexual contact in the hope that this will bring her into community with her rapist – are also present in Coetzee’s earlier story of an African farm, In the Heart of the Country. Set in the first half of this century, the novel is narrated by Magda, whose name (recalling the Afrikaans word for virgin, maagd), like Lucy’s, suggests her separateness from those around her. Living alone with her father, resenting his tyranny over his dependants yet also complicit in sustaining it, Magda longs for an end to solipsism. She is aloof from her neighbours on the farm, a black labourer called Hendrik and his wife, Klein Anna. Hendrik is what Petrus would once have been, a bywoner without property rights. When her father overturns this hierarchy by taking Klein Anna as his mistress, Magda kills him. The breakdown of the master-servant relationship culminates in Magda’s rape by Hendrik, resulting in a brief sexual liaison which ends when he abandons her. ‘What passion he has shown for me has been a passion of rage,’ she realises, dismayed. Concluding as it does with a total failure of reciprocity between parent and child, male and female, the coloniser and the colonised, In the Heart of the Country is a sombre work. On the face of it, Disgrace seems to offer a renegotiation of this stalemate, as a result of which Lucy and Petrus will manage to coexist; yet the novel’s depiction of a world of disrupted relationships is subtler, and far bleaker, than that of the earlier book.
As so often in Coetzee’s fiction, the characters in Disgrace have a metonymic or symbolic function. When we meet him in the early stages of the novel, David Lurie has sex with girls who are young enough to be his daughters – in a conversation with Melanie he nearly refers to himself as ‘Daddy’. The implication is that he is an unnatural father, a predator rather than a protector. Both the prostitute Soraya and Melanie-Meláni are ‘used’ women and, significantly, they are both dark. The analogy with a certain kind of exploitative colonial paternalism is so lightly and deftly set up that it is barely noticeable. It nonetheless recalls similar moments in the earlier novels: the appropriation of Klein Anna by Magda’s father; Eugene Dawn’s ironic caption, ‘Father Makes Merry with Children’, for a photograph of an American soldier raping a Vietnamese girl (‘The Vietnam Project’); the Boer settler Jacobus Coetzee’s reference to the San women he has raped as rags ‘you wipe yourself on and throw away’ (‘The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee’); and the Imperial Magistrate’s compulsive desire, in Waiting for the Barbarians, for the Barbarian girl whom he has picked off the street and adopted as a concubine. The fundamental flaw in the colonial enterprise, the novels suggest, consists in this absence of a real relationship between the paternalistic power and its subjects.
This non-relationship is reinforced by those characters in Coetzee’s fiction, such as Petrus and Hendrik, who are ciphers, whose souls are unreachable. Trying to get behind the facts of Lucy’s rape, Lurie complains that ‘talking to Petrus is like punching a bag filled with sand.’ The elderly Mrs Curren in Age of Iron, which is set during the State of Emergency declared by the Nationalist Government in the late Eighties, comes up against a similar wall of silence when she tries to question the black vagrant who has taken up residence first in her backyard and then in her living-room. Estranged from her only daughter and now dying of cancer, Mrs Curren adopts the enigmatic Vercueil (whose name, again, echoes an Afrikaans word, verskuil, ‘to hide’) as a companion, but he remains little more than an impassive onlooker as the last scenes of her life are played out. Like David Lurie, Mrs Curren is a former teacher, who sees the world through the prism of the classics, her own specialised field of knowledge. She offers well-meant advice when the teenage son of her maid, Florence, is hunted by the police for his involvement in a township resistance group; but her moral lessons, drawn from Thucydides, fall on deaf ears.
Of the many examples of the gulf between white and black in the novels, two in particular stand out. In Life and Times of Michael K, the hero, a coloured gardener, escapes a Cape Town torn by civil war and journeys into the countryside, growing his own food and enjoying a brief idyll of freedom before being interned in a labour camp. In captivity he refuses to eat or speak. His dogged non-co-operation at first baffles and then intrigues the medical officer in charge of him, who finally declares that Michael K is ‘an allegory . . . of how scandalously, how outrageously a meaning can take up residence in a system without becoming a term in it’. This is Coetzee’s most explicit attack on the unhealthiness of non-integration. The idea is given fuller treatment in his next book, Foe, where the silent other who resists interpretation is Friday. In Coetzee’s reworking of Robinson Crusoe, the tale of Cruso’s island kingdom is told to the famous man of letters, Daniel Foe, by Susan Barton, a castaway who spent a year on the island before being rescued by a passing ship and taking Friday back to civilisation with her. Much of the early part of Susan’s account is taken up by descriptions of the island’s domestic economy, a sterile arrangement in which Friday and Cruso labour all day to build terraces of stone where nothing is ever planted. Friday cannot speak because his tongue has been cut out, possibly by Cruso; he can only understand a few words of English, and he can neither write nor read. Back in England, Susan Barton talks at him ceaselessly, believing that ‘if I make the air around him thick with words, memories will be reborn in him which died under Cruso’s rule.’ Still he remains an obstacle in the text, refusing to yield his meaning until, in a bold gesture, Coetzee intervenes in the narrative in his capacity as author and effectively divests himself of the authority to tell Friday’s story. This gesture is glossed by Susan Barton’s vivid realisation of the impenetrability of Friday’s silence: ‘His mouth opens. From inside him comes a slow stream, without breath, without interruption. It flows up through his body and out upon me . . . Soft and cold, dark and unending, it beats against my eyelids, against the skin of my face.’
The moment of authorial renunciation is a dramatic attempt to highlight what David Attwell, one of Coetzee’s most perceptive critics, has called ‘the silence in which so many are caught’, the historical voicelessness of the colonised. In The Master of Petersburg the potential dangers of authorship are spelt out very clearly: we are shown a writer at work, trying to re-create the unknown inner life of his son, and betraying him through misrepresentation. Similarly, Susan Barton approaches Daniel Foe believing that he will set down her account of life on the island as accurately as possible, only to find that he rewrites it as a myth of the male pioneer. Foe is a supreme realist, a writer whose novelistic method is geared to the concealment of narrative artifice, who invents where necessary rather than leaving a loose end. Yet his narrative silences both Susan and Friday: Foe is the foe of truth. Whence Coetzee’s metafictional intervention in his text, his refusal to speak on behalf of Friday.
This refusal is also a gesture of atonemement, which has its corollary in the acts of self-abnegation performed by so many of Coetzee’s protagonists. Magda’s submission to Hendrik is a form of penance, part of the ‘purgatory we must pass through on the way to a land of milk and honey’. David Lurie recognises the same instinct at work in Lucy’s surrender to Petrus and tells her: ‘You wish to humble yourself before history.’ The disfigured Lurie himself embarks on a parallel via negativa in his relationship with Bev Shaw, working out his own form of personal salvation by annihilating his sexual vanity and his sense of superiority.
At the clinic for unwanted animals, Lurie tends the most abject creatures and in the course of his work gains an imaginative insight into the suffering not only of animals, but of other people. His sacrifice of the wounded dog which he has tried in vain to protect accompanies his realisation that he has no rights over Lucy, and cannot tell her how best to survive – an insight that puts their strained relationship on a more equal footing.
It is from this perspective – the recognition that our moral health depends on our ability to acknowledge some kind of selfhood in others – that the Tanner Lectures which Coetzee recently gave at Princeton on the subject of animal rights can be best approached. The Lives of Animals is a strange book, as surprising and idiosyncratic as anything Coetzee has ever written. It consists of two lectures framed, in the manner of a novel, by the story of a tense encounter between a mother and her son. The lecturer is Elizabeth Costello, a novelist who has been asked to deliver a series of talks on a subject of her choice at Appleton College (just as Coetzee was asked to deliver the Tanner Lectures, on which the book is based. Mise en abyme, anyone?). The son is John Bernard, who teaches at Appleton and is not pleased at the prospect of being reunited with his mother, a militant vegetarian. He tells her: ‘I haven’t had time to make sense of why you have become so intense about the animal business.’ On her arrival, she is plaintive and difficult, antagonising her daughter-in-law and exasperating John. Somewhere along the line, their relationship has developed into an emotional stand-off. Why?
Elizabeth Costello, like David Lurie, has a troubled relationship with her child. Her arguments in favour of vegetarianism are, as she freely admits, purely intuitive, based on a principle of active compassion and what she calls ‘a desire to save my soul’. Her plea for restraint in our dealings with animals appeals to our capacity for imaginative ‘sympathy, that allows us to share . . . the being of another’. That she cannot extend this sympathy to her family has to do with her own fears, now that she is elderly, about her place in its hierarchy. Her refusal to eat meat derives from a sense of her own kinship with the weak, and this sense of weakness is the key to her feelings about her son. Her affection for him is the helpless, vulnerable affection of the old, described by Mrs Curren in Age of Iron as ‘the love that we have no alternative but to feel towards those to whom we have given ourselves to devour or discard’. It is a fearful affection, which knows that in human society the survival of the weak depends on the goodwill of the strong – the love of a dog for its master. And that fear is justified. ‘What do you say, my friend?’ Bev Shaw murmurs to the sick animal in her clinic before putting it out of its misery, ‘What do you say? Is it enough?’ ‘There, there,’ John Bernard whispers to the suffering Elizabeth Costello, before performing a swift emotional amputation by seeing his mother onto the plane that will remove her from his life. ‘It will soon be over.’
Coetzee’s fiction is in many ways informed by an old-fashioned liberal humanist vision. The novels demonstrate clearly that absolute power over the other, power without pity, is always asserted at great cost. Unnatural fathers who silence their children will be silenced by them in turn. Age of Iron takes its title from Florence’s remark that her son, Bheki, and his comrades in the Guguletu revolutionary cell are ‘like iron’ in their cruelty. ‘And when they grow up one day,’ Mrs Curren asks Florence, ‘do you think the cruelty will leave them? . . . They set people on fire and laugh while they burn to death. How will they treat their own children?’ I suspect that what Coetzee’s South African critics really object to in his work is the implication that this pattern, once established, is to some extent fixed. If he has a revulsion, in Gordimer’s words, against ‘political and revolutionary solutions’, it is because he knows that revolution, too, has its place in the pattern. Where he invokes the language of revolution directly, as he does in The Master of Petersburg, its aridity is obvious. The speaker is Nechaev, the leader of an anarchist group intent not only on the end of Tsarism but on bringing about a new order in which individual rights will be obliterated: ‘Revolution is the end of everything old, including fathers and sons. It is the end of successions and dynasties. And it keeps renewing itself, if it is true revolution. With each generation the old revolution is overturned and history starts again . . . everything is reinvented, everything erased and reborn: law, morality, the family, everything.’ This is the personal life killed by history.
Disgrace is about a society in the process of being overhauled, in which morality has been ‘erased and reborn’ and all the terms have changed; this is the meaning of the name of the young rapist in the Petrus ménage – Pollux – with its incongruous classical associations. The world being jettisoned is that of David Lurie and Mrs Curren, with its interest in Romantic poetry and the classics – a world whose humanist values have failed to resolve the conflict between coloniser and colonised. And yet these very values – a respect for the individual, sympathy, restraint – become the measure of what is missing, in human terms, in the revolution. The truth is that there are two patriarchs in Disgrace: that Petrus represents a force for oppression without pity as great, potentially, as David Lurie’s. Lurie has made use of Soraya and Meláni, but there is a lethal symmetry in the fact that his own daughter is used in turn and becomes a chattel of the Petrus clan – a bywoner, without a voice. When the novel ends, news of her rape has for some time been bruited around the district by her rapists. The point is that this is ‘not her story to spread but theirs: they are its owners’. What Disgrace finally shows us is the promised victory of one expansionist force over another, with women as pawns, the objects of punitive violence. (‘There must be some niche in the system for women.’) The scenes of Petrus clearing his land, aided by Lurie, recall the passages in Foe in which Friday is set to work on the stone terraces, alongside his master. Petrus himself is recalcitrant, unyielding: he is the rock on which the future will be built. Disgrace is a deeply pessimistic book. It may have made the Booker shortlist, but it will not win unqualified praise from Coetzee’s more prescriptive critics in the South African literary establishment.