Disgrace says it all

Professor Coovadia can find the answer to why JM Coetzee deserted South Africa in Coetzee’s novel, Disgrace, a deeply pessimistic tome on his view of the future of the country.

Coetzee uses the novel as a metaphor to express his negative view of our future. It is a journey of moral degeneration, starting with the virtual rape by the protagonist professor of his young coloured student. In the scene he exploits his sense of intellectual and racial superiority as well as the power of his position over his victim to coerce her into having sex with him. When his deed is exposed, all that is required is for him to apologise.

This mild sanction typifies the disdainful reaction of state institutions to “non-white” victims of crime in the apartheid state. Whilst Coetzee does not attempt to justify it, the introduction serves to convey the power-divide between white and “non-white” society. As the story progresses this power structure is reversed. It exposes the author’s inner state of despair and hopelessness over the future.

Rather than apologise, the protagonist resigns from the university. He leaves Cape Town and takes up residence with his daughter, who lives a reclusive existence with her dogs on a smallholding in a remote district of the Eastern Cape. Once a month they travel to the nearest town to sell their produce on the local market. It is here that he meets the local vet, an over-weight middle-aged, completely unattractive woman whose main function is to euthanise stray dogs that roam the community. Here Coetzee conveys an image of the poverty that awaits us in this negative and depressing environment.

Our protagonist strikes up a working relationship with the vet. His task is to dump the dead animals. On a day when this is done he returns to the vet’s stark, empty surgery and in an act of depraved lust he has sex with her, surrounded by the instruments of death. This ugly scene exposes the protagonist’s descent into a state of moral turpitude combined with the erosion of self-esteem. The scene serves as a metaphor to represent the poverty, its concomitant corruption and loss of dignity that awaits whites in the new South Africa.

At the farm his daughter employs a black assistant to, among other things, feed her dogs when she’s away. On a day of her return from the market she arrives home to discover all her dogs have been poisoned. Her assistant had invited friends and family to stay with him on her property. It is quite clear where the guilt for this cruelty lies. Father and daughter are powerless to remove their new squatters. The poisoning of the dogs is the first step towards their intimidation and subjugation. As more of their neighbours’ friends and family arrive to squat on their property an all pervading climate of fear begins to overshadow what was once relative peace and tranquillity.

 Shortly after the poisoning incident the father is attacked by three of his new neighbours. He is locked in the toilet of the house. They then proceed to violently rape his daughter. He is powerless to help her as he listens to her screams and cries of despair as each of her assailants takes a turn to rape her.

After this crime the father wants to abandon the homestead but his daughter, now pregnant refuses to leave. She also refuses to have an abortion. Instead she ingratiates herself with her criminal squatters. Her final and complete subjugation occurs when she decides to marry the chief instigator of her rape. In so doing she sacrifices every shred of morality for the sake of self-preservation.

This conclusion to a thoroughly depressing story represents a grotesque parody of the author’s perception of how whites will survive under the new dispensation in South Africa.

The protagonist represents the old government. His moral decline symbolises the regime, decaying in the face of the violent onslaught against the state. The squatters symbolise the integration of blacks into previously “whites only” areas. The violent rape symbolises the all pervading state of crime and criminality sweeping the country and our impotence in dealing with it. The marriage represents the loveless acquiescence of whites to their new rulers in a union based on fear in which the pragmatic compulsion to retain possession of material wealth overrides the moral imperative to preserve integrity. This is the fate of the South Africa Coetzee has abandoned.

Chris Meares
Bramley, Johannesburg

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