A morality tale with no easy answers

With 'Disgrace,' J.M. Coetzee wins England's Booker Prize - again.

Leading J.M. Coetzee's "Disgrace" is like being kicked in the back. You feel the impact before you know what it means.

The only author to win England's prestigious Booker Prize twice, Coetzee is a white South African whose novels manage to capture the peculiar tensions of his own country and the universal territory of the human heart.

"Disgrace" opens with the ironic dissection of David Lurie, a slick middle-aged professor of Romantic literature. Reduced to the ignominy of teaching "communication skills" and twice divorced, Lurie clings to his aesthetic superiority as a way of weathering the mounting evidence of his personal failure.

Though he prides himself on living a careful, orderly life, signs of moral disarray are showing like cracks in the tile. First, he falls in love with a prostitute, disrupting the code of their sordid arrangement. Then, he seduces a shy student and pursues her despite her frightened objections.

In a scene as unsettling as David Mamet's "Oleanna," this young woman files a sexual harassment charge against him and ignites a public campaign to drive him from the university.

For an expert in communication skills, Lurie proves particularly inept at defusing this scandal. He badly misjudges the young woman's determination and the new political climate that empowers women to fight back against such unwanted advances.

In the first of several subtle twists of sympathy, Coetzee explores the tragic misconceptions that allow Lurie to feel so wronged even while acknowledging his guilt. The Romantic ideals of sexual conquest that he appeals to have no more currency in the new political climate than the dismantled system of apartheid.

Hauled before the faculty disciplinary committee, Lurie rejects the rhetoric of official repentance in a move that's simultaneously noble, self-righteous, and fatalistic. When pressed to detail his inappropriate behavior, Lurie sneers, "Our paths crossed. Words passed between us, and at that moment something happened which, not being a poet, I will not try to describe. Suffice it to say that Eros entered. After that I was not the same." The committee, of course, rejects this self-serving explanation and recommends the most severe penalty.

In disgrace, he abandons Cape Town and drives to his daughter's small, struggling farm in Salem on the Eastern Cape. Though he's full of disapproval for her sympathy with animals and her dangerous isolation, the pastoral quality of her life slowly begins to restore in him a degree of peace and hope.

All that is suddenly shattered when three black men appear out of nowhere, shoot her dogs, set Lurie on fire, and rape his daughter.

At this point, the novel's title begins to refract meaning in a dozen directions. Lurie's disgrace is compounded by his failure to protect his daughter. His previous appeal to an "ungovernable impulse" has returned to haunt him in the presence of these three bestial men.

Meanwhile, his daughter wrestles with her own sense of disgrace, first as a rape victim in a culture that holds women responsible for such crimes. Then, in some way that Lurie can't dislodge, his daughter comes to accept this horrid attack as the inevitable, even justified retribution for centuries of white oppression. Lurie finds himself confronting the same fatalism in his daughter that sank his own sexual-harassment trial.

It may be that 200 pages have never worked so hard as they do in Coetzee's hands. He's a novelist of stunning precision and efficiency. "Disgrace" loses none of its fidelity to the social and political complexities of South Africa, even while it explores the troubling tensions between generations, sexes, and races. This is a novel of almost frightening perception from a writer of brutally clear prose.

* Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csps.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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