Tuesday, March 16, 2010

1076 : My 2001 post on Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, when I first read it


 Coetzee COETZEE_

Hunted it out from my archives. Note, that my own style of writing has so considerably changed. Now I believe its more on its own, back then, it was, an effort, a craft, if I might call it that. Reprinted below.


J. M Coetzee is one of South Africa's best-known writers. His latest novel, the powerful and disturbing Disgrace, won the Booker Prize in 1999. Although he was the only writer to win that prize twice, Coetzee not only didn't go to England to collect it, he virtually refused all interviews.
Coetzee was born in Capetown, South Africa 60 years ago, and was educated in South Africa and the United States. His novels, such as Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K and The Master of Petersburg have won virtually every major literary prize in England, as well as other international awards.

Disgrace - J.M. Coetzee, a review

My first encounter with Coetzee was in an issue of Gentleman where the reviewer was pushing hard for the author. This was just after Coetzee had won the Booker. The author was liberal with his acclaim of the author, going onto to mention during the course of his article that Coetzee had been a revelation to him, especially after Rushdie, Kafka and Garcia Marquez. In those days (around early 2000), I had just finished with each of the three mentioned authors to some degree. Though I personally was not quite impressed with Marquez, Kafka and Rushdie had left their profound effect on me. I made a mental note to check out Coetzee at the first available option.

Life flows by, its cheap. It took me over 18 months( even a baby takes only 9 months....tasteless yet so true) to venture out and risk Coetzee.

I bought it three days ago, and today I started reading it. The first thing I noticed about the style of writing was the commentative style of narration. Let me give an example.

What the dog shall never be able to work out (not in a month of Sundays!!, he thinks), what his nose shall not tell him, is how one can enter what seems to be a ordinary room and never come out again. Something happens in that room, something unmentionable; here the soul is yanked out of the body; briefly it hangs about in the air, twisting and contorting; then it is sucked away and it is gone. It will be beyond him, this room is not a room but a hole where one leaks out of existence.

In the paragraph above, he is describing the room where the main character David Lurie and Bev Shaw (a vet quack), administer euthanasia to animals. Analyze carefully, the tone is not preachy, its commentative of what happens in the vet's room. I find this style of writing very close to Rushdie and to some degree Upamanyu Chaterjee. I don't mean that Coetzee uses any flowery language license, neither does he indulge in complex surrealism, but yes, there is the same detached commentary, the same sly style of the author doing a pipsqueak via his main character.

David is caricatured initially (and throughout ) as a person who is intelligent, educated, but a flowing freethinker. He is 52, and keeps his hymeneal urges in control by visiting Soraya, a female who indulges in flesh trade. The relationship with the prostitute( If I may use the word without any of its demeaning connotations) is professional to put it succinctly. Then one day, that professional barrier breaks, because he sees her as part of the 'his' society with two of her kids. Using these two kids as mental metaphors to destroy their conjugal bliss, David loses out completely on Soraya.

David teaches at Cape Town university. He teaches some poetry courses and communication skills. As he himself admits, he teaches more for the money, and less for his own belief in the subject.

This is where he seduces a 18 year old girl and has sex with her twice. The girl's boy friend gets whiff of the same and proceeds to vandalize David's life. David is now answerable to the interrogation committee at the university. This is where the book develops to become seductively  interesting. David's character comes out as one of those stoic people who knows he has trespassed some of the rules of life, but he is also very clear that he questions the rules of life which classify him as some trespasser.

The girl in question is completely forgotten at this point within the ambits of the book. She has been actually used as a prop to raise a larger question, and nowhere in the book, does Coetzee directly fire a salvo and suggest the 'larger' question.

The larger question though subtle, is what I think the book is all about. I think in that sense the book is very similar to Roy's God Of Small Things. The whole story revolves around that one unanswered question. Also, in accepting the whole scheme of life there is a sense of fatalism, yet grit which David exhibits. This is also very similar to GOST. I really don't know how that association got rankled up in my head, but yup, as I was reading Disgrace, every turning minute I was reminded of GOST.

My personal take is that in both cases, the respective authors are raising the question of love for life, and the repercussions it has on society and how it backfires on you. Another emotion that runs through both books is the apparent (and real) helplessness that runs through a normal human life when trapped within the ambits of some complex scheme of debauchery and travesty as it plays havoc with your life. I have been through such a time, and I tend to call it claustrophobia, a pent up helplessness.

To continue, David refuses to break, though the world around him is itching to break him. Infact in a post interrogation interview with a press female, he describes (not without sarcasm) that he found his sexual experiences with a girl old enough to be his daughter as 'enriching'.
Soraya, is tall and slim, with long black hair and dark, liquid eyes. Technically, he is old enough to be her father, but then, technically, one can be a father at twelve.

Abruptly, without much attempt to salvage his life, he packs his bags and leaves Cape Town and decides to move in with his daughter Lucy who lives in the country side. One facet of life which is unmistakably trapped within the book till this point, is the fact how the entire world around David rallies to make him conform to a society which he apparently does not subscribe/wish to continue subscribing.

Lucy is David's daughter from his first marriage and is a down to earth simple female, but her intellect is razor sharp. Her ability to think, ratiocinate and hold her own is demonstrated time and again throughout the book. She ekes out an existence growing some stuff in her backyard and rearing dogs until they are sold. She has hired a farm help who goes by the name of Petrus, who is a black who keeps two wives at the same time, and is an old man of around 45. Lucy is also involved with Bev who is a quack vet, but more often than not, she administers euthanasia (her choice not theirs) to the animals that come to her.

David seems to often tout the fact, that animals serve no purpose than to be fattened and then gobbled up, or being plain beasts of labor.

The buildup of the relationship between Lucy and her father is done well. There is a distinct aloofness, yet succor within their conversations. There is a healthy respect and excellent quality of conversations doing up and down between the two. She teases her father no end, and even discusses his problems at the university, though there is no judgments/opinion she holds on the same. 

David begins adjusting to the slow pace of country life, and when I was reading it, I realized how important it could be for a man of city to unwind in a place like a village, with no apparent hurry to reach anywhere. 

Living in a town dominated by blacks, two whites were bound to be troubled. It had to happen, and it happens. One day, three youths, loot their house, rape Lucy and set David afire. David saves himself by dousing himself with water, but there is nothing he could have done about Lucy.

From there on, begins a journey which does not end anywhere. Lucy is a picture of stoic courage and never for once displays apparent weakness, but she is broken in more ways than one. For the first few days she is silent, she refuses to even file a police case against the three for rape, only a robbery is registered.

Slowly and steadily, the wounds begin gnawing at Lucy and start making their presence felt externally. She becomes snappish with every passing day. Her relationship with David deteriorates to a point where both just refuse to speak anything sensible anymore to each other.

David is like the protective father who tries tooth and nail to try and convince his daughter that she should give up living in this shanty and move to a safer place like Cape town.

Then one day, Lucy speaks a little about what she went through. One of the paragraphs I am reproducing below, simply because its literary (in terms of sheer literature) stunning.

Hatred....When it comes to men and sex, David, nothing surprises me any more. Maybe for me, hating the women makes sex more exciting. You are a man, you ought to know. When you have sex with someone strange - when you trap her, hold her down, get her under you, put all your weight on her isn't it a bit like killing? Pushing the knife in, exiting afterwards, leaving the body behind covered in blood - doesn't it feel like murder, like getting away with murder?

There is so much anger in the choice of words which Lucy makes, yet no apparent demonstrable irritation. Its exactly what someone who was trying to be stoic in the face of being pushed against the wall would do. I am sure, because I have done it myself, and that bitterness (of some days of ere) still remains a part of me.

Now we are through to almost 80% of the book, but now the main part begins, which is the title of the book. David feels that this slow torture his daughter and he are being subjected to are part of some plan of life to get back at them...to disgrace them.

David in the meanwhile goes and meets the girl's (of affair fame) father who lives in a town nearby. The whole incident is almost shown as if David is trying to repair history. He is treated like some pariah by all in the house, other than the father. David's struggle with his own past and his feeble attempt to fight the conforming spirit is demonstrated in gay abandon. Once again David, behaves exactly I behaved after some bad patch in my life, the reality of the book is in stark contrast to most other characters you read in fiction. It is as if, this is a real story and not some fabricated fantasy.

Another catharsis, expunging effect for David is when he works with Bev and takes responsibly of post death formalities for the animals that have been put to sleep. He is shown in complete contrast to his earlier self where he feels every animal is no more there than to serve some designated purpose which is either food/labor. 

There is this scence where one day when he has dumped some bodies into the incinerator and is returning, he suddenly begins sobbing violently. The reality of the whole makes the whole book worthwhile. Men being broken by life has never been trapped any better in a novel save GOST.

Lucy takes the whole rape as a matter of fact, though she is actually been broken. She herself admits she is no longer alive, but dead.

Lucy is 3 months pregnant with three fathers, and is refusing to abort (drop off) the child, because she feels that you cannot punish a child for its fathers. 

To complicate matters one of the rapists is Petrus's (the farm help's) cousin, and lives in the house adjoining. 

One thread which I failed to mention is David has for long contemplated making an opera out of the fabled love of Byron and Teresa. In the end part of the book, he just about goes about doing that, but the sad part, which he himself admits is that his work is more an effort to keep him engrossed than to be considered as any serious work of art. 

The book ends, with David having an alteration with Lucy and deciding to leave her abode. He takes a house some miles away from her, and takes in some dogs for pets. As he continues to work on Byron and Terersa, using his mandolin (as he feels uncomfortable with his piano), he realises that one of the dogs who is nearing his death is the biggest fan of the opera, listening intently as David composes. 

David meets Bev to carry dead dogs to the incinerator. This week he contemplates whether his favorite dog must be given the euthanasia. He knows that he can safely stretch it for weeks, but quite abruptly he tells Bev that this dog must die today. Bev herself feigns suprise since she knows that this dog is the only sensible company he has. But he insists.

The last metaphor is the victory of death over life...a dark theme....yet so true.

Before I sign off, one more last stunning passage. Rosalind, David's ex-wife is generally trying to tell him that he wasted his life and fucked it all up in the chase of some 18 year old, for a fling that never enough lasted enough. Here goes.

"My life is not thrown away, Rosalind. Be sensible."
"But it is! You have lost you job, your name is mud, your friends avoid you, you hide in Torrance road like a tortoise afraid to stick its neck out of the shell. People who aren't fit enough to tie your shoelaces make jokes about you. Your shirt isn't ironed, God knows who gave you that haircut, you've got-", she arrests the tirade. "You are going to end up as one of those sad old men who poke around in rubbish bins."
"I am going to end up in a hole in the ground", he says. "And so are you. So are we all."

July 15th 2001, Monday - Amitabh Iyer

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