J.M. Coetzee’s new novel, Disgrace, shares with his other work a combination of aloofness and urgency, and like his Waiting for the Barbarians and Age of Iron, it is a story of education through suffering, told with a masochist’s or a Buddhist’s attention to what Coetzee, speaking in his memoir of the canes used to beat boys at his elementary school, has called “the various grades and flavors of pain.” In Disgrace, various instruments of agony pry open the heart of a solitary, arrogant professor: the loss of his job and good name; the unchecked decline of his body; above all, the rape of his daughter. David Lurie submits to the tutelage of pain and joins, with many of Coetzee’s characters before him, the unranked community of suffering. But Disgrace is also a departure for the South African Coetzee: Much of his earlier work was an allegory of colonial and racist power, but here, in his first novel since Nelson Mandela’s election, he has written with a chilling naturalism of a recognizable contemporary South Africa. The allegory is gone, and his characters appear to feel bare without it. Indeed, among the many themes of this diamond of a novel—Disgrace is dense, multifaceted, and cutting—is the frustrated temptation of allegory: the desire of sufferers to signify something beyond themselves.
This desire first captures Lurie, a professor of communications at Cape Technical University. Lurie is a devotee of Romantic poetry somewhat at sea among his “post-Christian, posthistorical, postliterate” students. He fears the world is becoming post-him, that he, formerly a great womanizer, is becoming, not historically, but physically obsolete: “Glances that would once have responded to his slid over, past, through him. Overnight he became a ghost.” It is therefore as a kind of last gasp that Lurie aggressively courts his mediocre but beautiful student, Melanie.
After a first strong-armed seduction, Lurie shows up at Melanie’s door and, if he does not rape her, at least proceeds without her consent. Melanie lodges a sexual harassment complaint and Lurie is sent before a disciplinary committee. There he pleads guilty as charged but refuses to express contrition before a “secular tribunal.” (One cannot help thinking of Bishop Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee.) Lurie wants his crime to mean more, not less, than it might. He would like at once to see himself as the sacrificial victim of a new politics and to elevate his crime to the status of a sin. He would like, in short, to allegorize: to represent the downfall of the aloof, conservative, elegantly predatory white man. His confusion is in not knowing whether he is a victim or has gotten his just deserts. When he is asked to resign, he is given the opportunity to work out his salvation or damnation on his own.
Lurie takes refuge at his daughter’s smallholding on the Eastern Cape. But the refuge is precarious: In the new South Africa, whites feel their safety eroding with their caste. Lurie’s daughter, Lucy, has entered into an uneasy alliance with her black neighbor Petrus, a shrewd man of her father’s generation who has gone from being a hired hand to a “co-proprietor,” and whose ambitions do not seem to end there. One day—a day on which Petrus is, suspiciously, away—three black men arrive at Lucy’s house, asking to use the telephone. Before they leave, they have looted the house, shot Lucy’s dogs, gang-raped Lucy, and—acte gratuit—doused Lurie’s head with methylated spirits and set it on fire.
Lucy’s reaction to the attack astonishes her father. Not only does she refuse to report the rapes, but she is tempted to see them as a form of historical reparations: “What if that is the price one has to pay for staying on? Perhaps that is how they look at it; perhaps that is how I should look at it too.” This is a ghastly idea, but its consolations are understandable. We especially decry “random” violence because it is not only a physical offense; it is an affront to meaning as well. Lurie looked for symbolism in his own disgrace, and now his daughter, in her very different way, follows suit.
There is very much more to Disgrace than this, but it is interesting, especially with Coetzee’s other, apartheid-era work in mind, to note this appetite for allegory arising among the characters of a ruthlessly naturalistic novel. Several critics have praised Disgrace as a kind of graduation from allegory, and so it is, but perhaps the change has as much to do with recent history as with Coetzee’s internal development.
Coetzee’s most allegorical novel, Life & Times of Michael K, was a kind of protest against allegory, in the way that intelligent political allegory—Kafka’s, Camus’s, Zamyatin’s— always is. Allegory collectivizes society into a representative character in order to resist real-life forced collectivizations of the kind that dispatch people to camps or (as in South Africa) to “homelands.” Michael K’s surname, lifted from Kafka, does not honor him; it mocks him. Michael wants to be himself and nothing other. He has an almost autistic need to be left alone, literally to tend his own garden. Instead he lives in an apocalyptic future South Africa—one that happily never came to pass—where he is constantly being repossessed by the state and made to live in a concentration camp or a hospital.
Disgrace attends to the reverse case. In the old South Africa, no one could escape signifying beyond himself, belonging to a racial and a political collectivity. On the other hand, one of the freedoms of a free society is the freedom not to mean anything, not to suffer official categorization. But when the individual’s rights are restored to him, so is his smallness. His life does not go beyond itself. The chill of extinction enters in.
So it is in Disgrace, where David Lurie finishes by becoming a volunteer in an animal shelter, euthanatizing dogs. He has come to feel akin to the dogs—reduced to the body, a packet of flesh without transcendent meaning. In this he is, of course—allegory entering in through the back door—a kind of representative man.