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Something's in the Air

The first time I read J. M. Coetzee, I was disappointed. I was a Master's student, taking a course in Postcolonial Literature and had signed up to do a project on Coetzee (we all had to choose one book on the syllabus on which we would make a presentation). My thought process went something like this: We're reading Heart of Darkness in this class. The edition of Conrad's novel we're reading is of the Penguin Twentieth Century Masterpieces series. J. M. Coetzee's Waiting For the Barbarians (1980), is also in that series. I like Heart of Darkness... perhaps the good people at Penguin share my tastes in literature. If they selected Conrad, maybe Coetzee's good, too. Therefore, I shall choose to present on Coetzee.

It probably also helped that the novel was slated to be discussed relatively late in the semester. In any case, I read and prepared a presentation on Waiting for the Barbarians, and remember not loving the book. I didn't exactly hate it, but I wasn't much more than lukewarm about it. I rather liked the nihilistic, absurd universe Coetzee created. I, perhaps not surprisingly, share the author's passion for Mr. Samuel Beckett and delighted in the resemblances.

But I found the book forgettable, in the end.

Now, when I picked up Disgrace (1999), I did not have the same expectations as I did when reading Coetzee's earlier novel. This time, however, I found myself really enjoying Coetzee. In fact, I like Disgrace enough to want to re-read Barbarians, to see if I missed something. That's how good this book is. Somehow Coetzee manages to add a vitality one would not expect out of a topic so stale as a sexual relationship between a Professor and student. Somehow, Coetzee took a character like Camus's Merseault and made him seem new, unique.

Despite the blurb on Disgrace's back cover proclaiming that "light and air seem to push up between the sentences like tiny miracles," Coetzee's novel does not exude any real sense of the positive. Rather than emit these "tiny miracles," Disgrace seems weighed down by some unseen burden, pinned by the unstated to an oppressive and debased ground.

David Lurie is an anti-hero. Readers can only sympathize with him in bursts. Throughout Disgrace, Lurie broods on his own aging, his immanent mortality, the slow decay of everything around him. His lassitude reflects the indolence of his students, his sexual regimentation reveals his need to isolate himself from the world. Yet, we do, as readers, find him a compelling person.

Following Lurie's lead, the reader considers mortality, morality, politics, and the fundamental inability of some humans to truly connect to another. We grow to dislike Petrus, the opportunistic "New African" who seeks to expand his meager plot of land into a large-scale farm encompassing neighboring smallholdings.

Under tremendous duress, Lurie seems destined to reach a new consciousness, his hard heart seems ready to undergo Grinch-like growth, but he fails to do so. Coetzee's protagonist frustrates the reader, as, indeed, does Disgrace. Like it's main character, Disgrace lacks an emotional center, feels cold, seems as if it could very well do without the reader.

Yet Coetzee's prose, despite the blurb's promise of "tiny miracles," doesn't allow the lightness to push up from behind the sentences. Rather, the prose seems to suggest that some redeeming epiphany lies just around the corner, yet remains utterly inaccessible. And it is this sense of the inaccessible that drives the narrative forward. Like a cartoon carrot hung from a string in front of a hungry pack animal, the reader trudges forward, hoping to chomp down on that elusive legume. Like Godot, that satisfaction never arrives. We are left, instead, with Lurie changed by experience, yet unchanged. If life was bad, it's just a bit worse at the end of the novel. If sex wasn't satisfying, it's less satisfying. If Lurie was isolated, he's more isolated.

The more things change, the adage goes, the more things stay the same. South Africa has changed, but the same evils persist. Greedy, ruthless whites have been replaced by greedy, ruthless black Africans.

The only light to be found in Disgrace would be the sort of sunlight that Beckett describes at the opening of Murphy: "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new."

Indeed, it is the darkness that defines Disgrace. What lies in the shadows, what Coetzee never expresses, is what the novel is all about. We can speculate all we want about the state of South Africa, the latent racism some people find in Coetzee's novel, or the author's decision to leave his homeland for Australia, but in the end, the novel resists the sort of cut-and-dry reading such factors seem to suggest.

There's an illness in South Africa, lacking a name and, apparently, a cure. It's presence is palpable, its effect devastating, yet it remains just beyond the reach of words. Disgrace dances around it, suggesting many identifications, and leaves the reader just slightly sickened, a tad bit haunted by the specter of this illness. If light and air do indeed push up from behind and permeate Coetzee's prose, something foul's in the air.

Sobriquet Grade: 4.1/5.0 (Exceptional).

(Originally published in Sobriquet 16.8)

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