One can punish a dog, it seems to me, for an offence like chewing a slipper. A dog will accept the justice of that: a beating for a chewing. But desire is another story. No animal will accept the justice of being punished for following its instincts.
Such is the limited reasoning ability of David Lurie, a middle-aged (52) White South African man who spends his days as an adjunct professor at Cape Technical University in Cape Town where he teaches introductory communications courses which bore him and leave him with nothing but contempt for the students he regards as ignorant. That a dog has a desire to chew or that some instincts, if acted upon, should be punishable acts doesn’t seem to occur to Lurie, a twice divorced serial womanizer who chalks his desires up to instinct and therefore not something he should be sorry for.
Lurie, the protagonist in the Booker Prize winning novel, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, is forced to resign from the University after a 20-year old female student files a complaint, a charge he acknowledges but won’t apologize for. Unemployed and publicly humiliated, Lurie decides to drive nearly 500 miles to visit his 25-year old daughter in Grahamstown, on the east coast of South Africa, where she lives and works on a small farm that used to be a commune. During his visit, a violent incident impacts both father and daughter, leading them to reexamine their relationship with each other and the world around them.
Disgrace is a more than a novel about a narcissistic and self-absorbed man though. Written in both the first and third person, the reader is privy to both Lurie’s thought process and the narrator’s voice as the story unfolds. From Lurie’s perspective, the reader sees an aging man who has always considered himself a player (“were he to choose a totem, it would be a snake.”) but realizes those days are nearly gone:
He ought to give up, retire from the game. At what age, he wonders, did Origen castrate himself? Not the most graceful of solutions, but then ageing is not a graceful business. A clearing of the decks, at least, so that one can turn one’s mind to the proper business of the old: preparing to die.
His interests lie in solo pursuits – studying opera, poetry, and especially the writings of Lord Byron, the English poet most famous for the satirical masterpiece Don Juan. A gifted artist who died at 36, Byron was known for his sexual exploits and was spared the ravages of time by dying young – a fact that intrigues Lurie who identifies with the pleasure-seeking poet.
From the narrator’s point of view, the reader is exposed to post-Apartheid South Africa where the white male is no longer all-powerful and yet, women are still treated as chattel. Justice is loosely defined especially when blood lines are involved, and animal rights are virtually non-existent. Disgrace shows the reader the many disgraces that happen in a world where there are not enough resources for everyone, where the weak and the kind have insufficient protection, and when men believe “a women’s beauty does not belong to her alone. It is part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it.”