I remember the violence of the 1990s. One can hardly forget it – it is still with us today. What is more I could very well have been one of its victims. Waking up one afternoon after coming back from the University and just before going to my evening job I heard some noises downstairs. I called out. There was no response. Then, as I lay with my eyelids closing, I heard footsteps on the stairs. I called out again. There was still no answer. I got up, slightly unwillingly, and walked out of my room. A man was in front of me, moving up the stairs he was holding something in his hand, a knife, a gun, a chocolate, luckily I never had to find out. I yelled and picked up a cricket bat that was in the passage. He was still at least six meters away but in fright he stumbled backwards tripping and tumbling down the stairs. And as he fell onto the landing I ran to press the panic button and lock myself in my room. I did not want to go downstairs; I could hear the noises of running on the wooden floors. How many men there were down there and what they were carrying, knives, guns, Easter hampers, I was not willing to find out. Luckily he/they fled stealing nothing and leaving me alive.
For weeks after that I didn’t sleep without fear. Some days later my mother woke me up in the morning and I leapt up, my hands automatically raised stopped just short of grabbing her around the throat. Next door, a month or so after that, the domestic worker and later the wife, when she arrived home, were tied up by intruders and badly beaten and threated with a hot iron. Their several assailants demanded they open the gun safe. As it turned out the intruders finally, after several hours of torture, believed them, that they did not know the code, and the torturers left, sparing their lives.
In the white community, who were at that stage far more used to dishing out violence than receiving it, there were two takes on what was happening. One was that these acts of violence were acts of revenge and appropriation. The other was simply that the violence that had existed for many years in the townships, perpetuated by soldier, policeman and criminal alike, was spreading to the white areas now that the ring of the police and army, that had encircled the townships, were no longer operating on the sole mission of protecting white people and abusing black people. As Steve Biko pointed out in his column ‘I Write What I Like’: ‘Township life alone makes it a miracle for anyone to live up to adulthood. There we see a situation of absolute want in which black will kill black to be able to survive. This is the basis of the vandalism murder, rape and plunder that goes on while the real sources of the evil – white society – are suntanning on exclusive beaches or relaxing in their bourgeois homes.’ (82)
The narrator of Coetzee’s Disgrace, which one should dutifully point out is neither Coetzee nor Prof David Lurie but rather a voice established in the third person subjective, adopts the former view. That is to say that he sees the violence against white people as an act of revenge and reappropriation. This is an attitude I always strongly disagreed with but was, (and is) one that is widely held and hence its centrality to the novel. Of course the novel begins with a sense of apartheid-era white bliss. Although not on the beach suntanning and not in the bourgeois home – this is Coetzee after all – it begins with the middle-aged white male, David Lurie, gleefully fucking a prostitute whose ‘honey-brown body’ delights him.
To be sure from the title of the book as well as the narrative’s placement in history, the late 1990s, we know that this white man is in for a fall. And so after another gleeful few sessions, this time with his student Melanie ‘the dark one’ Isaacs, which he admits is ‘not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core’, he is disgraced and he sends himself off to his lesbian daughter’s small holding in the Eastern Cape near Grahamstown (which he claims inexplicably to be in the ‘same part of the world’ (68) as George, I guess much like London might be in the same part of the world as Paris?).
Again, with his daughter Lucy, we will see a part of South Africa in transformation. Lucy’s ‘Friday’, a man called Petrus, is finding his tongue. He was, as Lurie’s thoughts tell us, ‘a boy, now he is no longer.’ (152) Here the word ‘boy’ is used in its specifically South African context meaning a black man who is reduced, through racism, to the status of a child. But as Lucy tells her father, Petrus is no longer apartheid’s infantilised subject but is now the ‘co-proprietor’ of the farm.
As the narrative continues Petrus’s agency is transformed from objective boy to subjective man. This depiction begins with Lucy still informing the not-yet-fully-formed Petrus how to dilute pesticide and it develops to a man who is in a process of modernising his agricultural practice: using a tractor and plough, constructing a modern irrigation system and having a brick homestead build for him by skilled artisans. As such Petrus is ‘the rock’ on which South Africa will build its new church.
Petrus’s actions are now: ‘All very swift and businesslike; very unlike Africa.’ But then what is this ‘new Africa’ that the narrator is identifying through Lurie? Certainly, as is intimated above, it is a changing one within the South African context. But before the realization of the change is revealed to Lurie, we receive a small prelude of what the old Africa is like (and how it relates to the new) when a sick goat is brought in to the animal shelter in which Lurie works. The goat’s suffering and immanent slaughter is put down to: ‘This is Africa, after all.’ (83) Furthermore Lurie’s job in the centre is said to be an attempt to ‘lighten the load of Africa’s suffering beasts.’ As Bev Shaw, the woman who runs the animal shelter, states, things have changed since the end of apartheid: ‘There is no funding any longer. On the list of the nation’s priorities, animals come nowhere.’ And so here we see a sample of how old Africa meets with the new. That is old Africa’s cruelty and indifference towards its animals is reproduced in ‘new Africa’s’ Government policy.
And it is this pitiless attitude that is at the root of the change. Much like in Age of Iron the narrator of Disgrace suggests that a transformation has taken place in the psyche of the black South African. As Lurie says to Bev Shaw:
Because Petrus has a beard and smokes a pipe and carries a stick, you think Petrus is an old-style kaffir. But it is not like that at all. Petrus is not an old-style Kaffir, much less a good old chap. Petrus in my opinion is itching for Lucy to pull out. (140)
This idea is reiterated in Lurie’s thoughts some pages later:
Against this new Petrus what chance does Lucy stand? Petrus arrived as the dig-man, the carry-man, the water-man. Now he is too busy for that kind of thing. Where is Lucy going to find someone to dig, to carry, to water? Were this a chess game, he would say that Lucy has been outplayed on all fronts. If she had any sense she would quit: approach the Land Bank, work out a deal, consign the farm to Petrus, return to civilization. (151)
Where indeed in the Eastern Cape, the province with the lowest employment rate in the country, is Lucy going to find a workman? But let us pass over that absurdity. Later in the novel when Lurie goes to Melanie Isaacs’s father to offer his own peculiar form of repentance he states that his daughter has an ‘African’ who helps her, who ‘is solid and dependable’ ‘with moderate ambitions’ – that is to say he offers Mr Isaacs the white myth of the ‘old-style Kaffir’. But by now, however, the reader knows full well that this is not Lurie’s opinion of Petrus. Petrus after all ‘has a vision for the future which people like Lucy have no place.’ (118) And Lurie has become progressively more convinced that Petrus on some terms organised the robbery and the rape of Lucy by the three men, one of which turns out to be a relation of Petrus’s.
But the question is why has this transformation in Petrus to a person of cunning opportunism and tribal patriarchal dominance taken place? This Lurie has a simple answer to:
Too many people, too few things. What there is must go into circulation, so that everyone can have a chance to be happy for a day. That is the theory; hold to the theory and to the comforts of theory. Not human evil, just a vast circulatory system, to whose workings pity and terror are irrelevant. That is how one must see life in this country: in its schematic aspect. Otherwise one could go mad. Cars, shoes; women too. (98)
The sense that all Petrus and his people want is a distribution of the white man’s possessions is again stated when near the end Lurie comes back to his house in Cape Town and finds it has been broken into. But as he says it is: ‘No ordinary burglary. A raiding party moving in, cleaning out the site, retreating laden with bags, boxes, suitcases. Booty; war reparations; another incident in the great campaign of redistribution.’ (176)
Crime in South Africa committed by black people and whose victims are white is, as Lurie thinks, not crime in the quotidian sense of the word. When a car is stolen in Europe that is crime, when it is stolen from a white man in South Africa it is part of an organized war campaign. It is ‘a satisfying afternoon’s work, heady, like all revenge.’ (110) And as he suggests this difference is inherent in rape. A black man who rapes a white woman, in Lurie’s estimation, is part of ‘the revenge’. He is different to a white male who rapes and seemingly different to when a black man rapes a black woman. Here one could say, in true postmodern fashion, but this is only Lurie’s opinion relative to him. One could say this is not Coetzee’s view, instead Lurie is a construct, he is there to represent a white attitude widely held both then and now.
But I think this would only be true if Lucy, who is the victim of rape, had a markedly different take on what happened to her. But she doesn’t. In many ways she, far from rejecting Lurie’s thoughts on rape in South Africa, in fact reifies them and in so doing establishes the pitiless, cruel and violent terms of the new Africa. Here I think simply reproducing three scenes will go some way to expressing my point.
‘I think they have done it before,’ she resumes, her voice steadier now. ‘At least the two older ones have. I think they are rapists first and foremost. Stealing things is just incidental. A side-line. I think they do rape.’
‘You think they will come back?’
‘I think I am in their territory. They have marked me. They will come back for me.’
Then later Lucy starts:
‘They spur each other on. That’s probably why they do it together. Like dogs in a pack.’
‘And the third one, the boy?’
‘He was there to learn.’
‘If they had been white you wouldn’t talk about them in this way,’ he says. ‘If they had been white thugs from Despatch, for instance.’
‘No, you wouldn’t. I am not blaming you, that is not the point. But it is something new you are talking about. Slavery. They want you for their slave.’
‘Not slavery. Subjection. Subjugation.’
And finally once Lucy has told her father that she has accepted Africa’s terms and is going to have her rapist’s child, Petrus, in a piece of pure blackmail, tells Lurie that the only way he (Petrus) can be sure to protect Lucy is for her to be one of his wives:
‘No, I’m not leaving. Go to Petrus and tell him what I have said. Tell him I give up the land. Tell him that he can have it, title deed and all. He will love that.’
There is a pause between them.
‘How humiliating,’ he says finally. ‘Such high hopes, and to end like this.’
‘Yes, I agree, it is humiliating. But perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing. Not with nothing but. With nothing. No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity.’
‘Like a dog.’
‘Yes, like a dog.’
And so it is that Lucy accepts her subjugation to the violent patriarchy of the new South Africa. She is raped not only by three men but by Africa itself and is prepared to bear its progeny in order to remain and start again, rightless and vanquished because, as she tells her father, ‘this is Africa’.
Of course it should be pointed out that Lucy’s take on black crime is not quite the same as her father’s in that she does not suggest a necessary racial distinction. She does though intimate that the white man in some sense must give up their rights and privileges if they are to continue in Africa. But with this Lucy suggests that to be an African everyperson one has to be reduced to the status of the dispossessed and dominated by patriarchy. And so we see Lucy and her father having a progressively convergent attitude and conception of Africa.
But the argument is still, I hear the postmodern critics shouting, ‘this is not Coetzee’, ‘this is a fictional construct’, ‘this is postmodern “play”’. That of course I accept. But what is Coetzee playing with? White people’s misguided attitudes? Well then where is the counterpoint? Where is, at least, the intimation of deconstructing the dominant white theory of a violent Africa where ‘pity and terror are irrelevant’? Where is the Africa that defies crime, the Africa that does not have rape in its culture, the Africa that decries the injustices of violence? Well, to me at the very least, in Disgrace there isn’t one. Nor is one intimated at.
Munroe C. Beardsley, in defence of the ‘intentionalist fallacy’ (that you can only read what is in the text, that no exterior information relating to the author’s life and beliefs can inform a reading), makes an interesting point in this regard. He contended that Daniel Defoe’s pamphlet ‘The Shortest Way with Dissenters’, given that it did not contain any stylistic ‘give-aways’ showing it to be a piece of satire, argued for dissenters to be treated with punitive severity. In fact Defoe was, ironically, imprisoned for the publication of the pamphlet and suffered from the very treatment that he had seemingly recommended. That is to say that the Monarchy of Queen Ann did recognise the satirical ‘stylistic give-aways’ and treated the writer not as their ally but their foe. But the point is this, if the text of Disgrace is to be read as a critique, a satire, or as ironically, it will, in places, have to suggest this reading. But I don’t see any suggestions in Disgrace that Lurie, Bev Shaw and Lucy’s take on Africa is anything other than the supposed reality of the situation. Lurie’s thoughts are confirmed by Lucy’s words, by Petrus’s actions, by the three rapists’ crime, by the Cape Town robbers’s deeds and the animals shelters plight. It is a closed system. There is no counterpoint and there are no clear ‘give-aways’.
Of course Lurie is a pompous self-satisfied fool, Lucy an abused victim, Petrus and the others the victims of colonialism and apartheid. But you, the reader, must understand this as something functioning outside of the text rather than anything that happens or is said within it. To read Disgrace as in some way subverting or questioning, even on the smallest terms, the white concept of Africa as violent, rapacious and fundamentally patriarchal one has to step outside of the text. One would have to have a fully formed idea of apartheid as well as some experience of Africa as not entirely the place described within its pages. And on these terms why would Coetzee allow any justification of Disgrace to exist only outside the text? We all know that he has read Roland Barthes. If the reader is willing to suggest that a justification of the text does exist outside of it, how are we to interpret Coetzee’s emigration subsequent to the publication of the novel? How then are we to interpret the last words when Lurie states ‘I am giving him up’?
All we have to work on is that Coetzee purposefully created a third person subjective narrative voice, distancing the immediacy of the ‘I’ and deferring responsibility to the ‘he’. And the other is that we know that Coetzee knows that phrases like ‘darkest Africa’, which is stated on several occasions, has been deeply divisive and widely criticised by the likes of Chinua Achebe and Edward Said. But these authorial intentions are slim pickings for the critic. If Coetzee does think that the position of Lurie and Lucy is bankrupt, why offer it in such a flat unnuanced manner? Where is the absurdity, doubt and counterpoint of a work like Foe?
At best one might say of Disgrace, given the history and public utterances of our President Jacob Zuma, that it is on some terms prophetic. But that is to suggest that Zuma and his cronies represent Africa and it is this which I utterly reject on historical, moral and personal grounds. Simply because some of Africa’s elites act in such a manner one does not have to, in Lurie’s terms, ‘humble oneself to history’. Furthermore, why is the victim in the novel only white when the vast majority of victims in South Africa still remain, to this day, black? Here I am not suggesting that Coetzee has to balance the state of victimhood out in the novel. But what is suggested in Disgrace is that white women, who are victims of rape, are a special kind of victim. The victim of revenge as well as the victim of Africa, while the black victim is, by intimation, simply plain old Africa being plain old new Africa. With this one begins to wonder just how close Disgrace is to mirroring the thoughts of Judge Jansen.