South African literature is a literature in bondage,” observed J. M. Coetzee, accepting the Jerusalem Prize in 1987, when apartheid was still the law of his troubled native land. “It is exactly the kind of literature you would expect people to write from a prison.”
One consequence of that incarceration is the expectation that one always and only writes about the prison. While John Updike seemed free to follow his imagination, Soviet writers who ignored the gulag were thought frivolous or complicit. Though Coetzee is, like Alan Paton and Nadine Gordimer, one of the few South African novelists with an international following, he is sometimes faulted for a failure to engage the specific coordinates of the time and place in which he lives. Though generally sympathetic toward Coetzee, Gordimer (South Africa’s only literary Nobel laureate) assailed his reluctance to comply with the conventions of her own social realism, his “desire to hold himself clear of events and their daily, grubby, tragic consequences in which, like everybody else living in South Africa, he is up to the neck.” Images of torture chambers and township violence are nowhere present in Coetzee’s first novel, In the Heart of the Country (1977), which one critic, Hena Maes-Jelinek, characterizes as a “shrinking away from a genuine exploration of history” and a “retreat into language.” One language that does show up toward the end of that book — spoken by voices in strange machines flying overhead — is Spanish, a language rarely heard in the southern part of Africa.
Spanish is of course widely spoken in Texas, where Coetzee, who earned a Ph.D. from U.T.-Austin, lived from 1965 to 1968. Poking among the millions of manuscripts housed in the university’s Humanities Research Center, the young graduate student discovered the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century accounts of travels to South West Africa by European explorers, settlers, and missionaries that inspired him to write Dusklands (1974), his first book of fiction. Waiting for the Barbarians, the 1983 novel that is still his best known work, is set in a rugged rural landscape, the remote outpost of an unnamed empire, and, though it probably isn’t Kansas, it certainly could be Texas. In fact, it is March when the characters await spring thaw, something possible only in the Northern Hemisphere, where Texas is located, and not the Southern Hemisphere, where the author was born and lives. Coetzee wrote most of Waiting for the Barbarians in 1979, during a leave of absence from his position at the University of Cape Town that he spent in the United States, in part again in Austin. Texas’ best contemporary author lives in a “Rainbow Nation” that echoes with eleven official languages (Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Pedi, Sotho, Swati, Tsonga, Tswana, Xhosa, Venda, and Zulu). Not one of them is Spanish.
Life & Times of Michael K (1983) and Age of Iron (1990) are set squarely within the South Africa of pass laws and Bantustans, and Coetzee’s 1997 memoir, Boyhood, is a portrait of the artist as a young Cape man anxious about his mixed English and Afrikaner heritage. Yet even in The Master of Petersburg (1994), when the setting is nineteenth-century Russia, Coetzee, brooding over catastrophe and individual doubts and responsibilities, writes with a sensibility and urgency shaped by growing up in a privileged redoubt at the tip of Africa.
What has irked some critics is that Coetzee is more interested in creating fiction than polemic. That is nowhere more evident than in the Tanner Lectures he was invited to give at Princeton University during 1997-98. Provided with an academic bully pulpit, Coetzee refused to pontificate, choosing instead to fabulate, to imagine an elderly novelist, Elizabeth Costello, delivering two Tanner Lectures, “The Philosophers and the Animals,” and “The Poets and the Animals,” that embarrass her son John, a professor of physics, and anger her daughter-in-law, Norma. Published in 1999 as The Lives of Animals, Coetzee’s Tanner Lectures did not entirely satisfy either animal rights advocates or antagonists.
David Lurie, the 52-year-old protagonist of Disgrace, ends up working in an animal shelter in Grahamstown. And though initially scornful of scruples about other species, his dramatic arc is an illustration of what Elizabeth Costello in The Lives of Animals called “the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another.” For a white South African, the Other was also a human being classified — and segregated — by the National Party’s racist régime as “African,” “Colored,” or “Asian.” Disgrace is written in the aftermath of apartheid; in 1991 African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela ascended to the presidency of the nation that had imprisoned him for twenty-seven years. But initial exhilaration over the end of institutional apartheid has dwindled into endemic malaise. Economic inequality remains severe and stubborn, unemployment is about 40 percent, and South Africa suffers from the world’s highest rates of street crime. Lurie’s midlife crisis parallels the troubles of his own unhappy land.
When we first meet Lurie, he is on the faculty of what used to be Cape Town University College but is now, under the new dispensation, called Cape Technical University. Under a policy of “rationalized personnel,” his position as professor of modern languages has been redefined as adjunct professor of communications. Instead of lecturing on the English Romantic poets he loves, he spends most of his time trying to teach indifferent students how to devise coherent sentences. “Clerks in a post-religious age,” Lurie and his colleagues must make do with a fallen world.
Twice-divorced, Lurie satisfies his erotic needs with a weekly professional assignation. But when he becomes smitten with Melanie Isaacs, a vulnerable, lovely student less than half his age, his life is utterly transformed — through the power of ignominy more than Aphrodite. Refusing to defend himself against charges of sexual harassment, Lurie quits his position in disgrace. He abandons the city to stay with his only daughter, Lucy, who lives alone on a small, secluded farm in the Eastern Cape. Though his heart is in an opera, “Byron in Italy,” that he intends to write, Lurie helps out with household chores. In an inversion of the historical hierarchy of power, he also works as assistant to Petrus, a black neighbor who is insinuating himself into control of the area. When three black strangers beat Lurie and rape Lucy, it forces Lurie to concentrate his thoughts on the kind of garden he has resigned himself to cultivating.
Melanie Isaacs is an aspiring actress who lands a part in a new play called “Sunset at the Globe Salon.” A comedy of cultural dissonances, in which women of different races collide in a beauty parlor, it is the kind of popular Literature of the New South Africa that Coetzee seems intent on not writing. The precise, incisive sentences of Disgrace refuse facile consolation, as if conceding that no pronouncements by the Peace and Reconciliation Commission — established to bring closure to the atrocities under apartheid — can ever erase the shame. Like Lurie’s sexual depredations and Lucy’s rape, a nation’s crimes against the Other can never be erased.
In one of the novel’s most painful scenes, Lurie seeks out Melanie’s angry father in his home and tries to explain what drew the professor to his daughter and why he refused to issue the formulaic apology that the university demanded as a condition for rehabilitation. “In my own terms,” he tells Mr. Isaacs, “I am being punished for what happened between myself and your daughter. I am sunk into a state of disgrace from which it will not be easy to lift myself. It is not a punishment I have refused. I do not murmur against it. On the contrary, I am living it out from day to day, trying to accept disgrace as my state of being.” Coetzee’s latest terse, bleak book limns a world bereft of grace.
Lurie lowers his expectations enough to take up with Bev Shaw, a doughty, married do-gooder quite different from the nubile beauties on whom he usually preys. At the rural animal shelter that she runs, he takes on the dismal task of putting stray dogs to death, and of disposing of their corpses in a way that does not violate their dignity. “This is the only life there is,” explains Lucy. “Which we share with animals.” It is impossible not to hear an echo from The Lives of Animals, where Elizabeth Costello denounces “speciesism” as “an enterprise of degradation, cruelty, and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of.” Nor is it possible to ignore the weary recognition that we must share our lives with another gender and other races.
Lurie abandons his original plan to make “Byron in Italy” an opera about the passionate attachment of the flamboyant British poet to the attractive Contessa Teresa Guiccioli. By the end of Disgrace, Lurie’s Byron is dead, and Teresa old and lonely. Sitting outside the animal shelter, Lurie plunks out pieces of “his eccentric little chamber opera” on an old banjo. “The lyric impulse in him may not be dead,” we are told, “but after decades of starvation it can crawl forth from its cave only pinched, stunted, deformed.” Coetzee bears stunning testimony to the truth that South African literature, like that of any other flawed and mortal people, sings most eloquently when it accepts disgrace as a state of being.
Steven G. Kellman is Ashbel Smith Professor of Comparative Literature at U.T.-San Antonio, and co-editor of Leslie Fiedler and American Culture. He writes on film for the San Antonio Current.