While Coetzee’s novel is primarily a story of personal disgrace – our protagonist is cast out of his university’s ivory tower thanks to his inappropriate fondness for students – the country’s political transformation is not a simple backdrop. I happened to finish Disgrace just as the Guardian reported on the plight of a couple of white South African asylum seekers refused residence in the USA. Whites who, like Professor Lurie, have failed to find a comfortable place in the new South Africa.
So this is a novel that captures change experienced from the other side; those favoured by an unfair system; those forced to surrender privilege. The professor doesn’t appear to hanker for apartheid’s return, but his disgrace is symptomatic of a world view somehow incompatible with the new South Africa. The country has transformed without bloody revenge, but that doesn’t mean there are not scores to settle and in Coetzee’s world such issues are worked out personally.
A Booker Prize winner, Disgrace obviously fits the emerging literary genre and it’s an accomplished piece. Yet I found the style somehow distancing – almost alienating – holding me back too far from the people on the page; capturing a story that needs to be told, yet somehow too coldly.