"Disgrace," Coetzee's prize-winning offering to the literary world, is a disturbing book - which is a very mild way of saying that it jolts you out of your complacencies, sends a chill down your spine and keeps coming back to haunt you even when you put it away. It places scenes before you that you'd rather turn your eyes away from. And it unwraps matters that would generally be swept under the carpet in polite society. The pattern of shame and disgrace suffered by david Lurie is repeated with Lurie's daughter as the sufferer. It is almost as though she were paying back for the sins of her father. She bears it all in silence, refusing to complain, taking it as the price that she, being white, must pay for living in a black country. Personal relationships thus get meshed with local and national politics and with racial history. It is no longer the story of individuals but of two races split by a colour divide.
"Disgrace" is heavy with symbolism, drawing constant parallels between the human and the bestial (Bev Shaw and her dog clinic), making the reader wonder which of the two species is more humane. It is a novel that focuses attention on the sorrows of being human in a world that is essentially inhuman, a world that is unable to understand and reach out to individuals caught up in an existential web of loneliness and pride.
As he narrates the story of the main protagonist, the writer, John Coetzee, interweaves it with the story of a nation coming into its own, throwing off age-old shackles of the apartheid curse. This, in different hands, would probably be an optimistic theme, welcoming the dawn of a new era. But Coetzee is aware of the Savage God that takes birth, replacing one chaos with another. Disgrace, which begins as the story of a professor of English driven by Eros, ultimately turns out to be the tale of the white man in South Africa. What happens when the reigning majority is reduced to a minority, a hounded, unwanted minority? What price does it have to pay then for the sins of the past?
To put it differently, what happens to the master when he is overthrown? What is the retribution? How do the erstwhile slaves take revenge? The history of the country thus becomes metaphorically entwined with that of individual characters. Racial hatred is laid bare and the harsh, ugly realities of post-apartheid South Africa, horrifying and frightening, are foregrounded.
So the novel is about the aftermath of decolonization as much as it is about the aftermath of Desire. In electing an anti-hero as the main protagonist, Coetzee draws our attention to what human beings really are. Like Lurie, they go wrong and fall from their pedestals - simply because they are human, fallible, flawed creatures: "...how are the mighty fallen!" says a character in Disgrace. But, through sacrifice, love and compassion there is the hope of redemption, at least partial. This is the underlying Christian theme, the saving grace that lifts ordinary mortals to a higher plane, enabling them to have intimations of immortality in a world that is undeniably mortal.
Narrated in a bare minimalist style, spare and precise almost to a fault, the narrative does not falter or linger over superfluous words or emotions. There is no moralizing, no sentimentality or gimmickry. The author believes in understatement: his symbols are loaded, the power of suggestion is strong and unignorable. Indeed, Coetzee knows how to hold his readers' attention, how to write an award winning book, how to produce a masterpiece. We love it, even if the masterpiece is one that niggles at our conscience and makes us uncomfortable!