It is hard to find an admirer of J.M. Coetzee’s work who does not think that his best book is Disgrace, one of the strongest novels of the last quarter-century and, among other things, a masterpiece of misdirection. It is easier to tell that the novel is a work of great force than it is to be precise about what exactly it is telling us. Disgrace‘s narrator, David Lurie, teaches Romantic poetry at the technical university of Cape Town, and dreams of sneaking away from his work to write an opera about Byron in Italy. He is cold and cultivated and solipsistic, and he is also a user of women.
When we first meet him he is paying for once-a-week sex with Soraya, a part-time prostitute whom he contacted through an escort agency. But one Saturday he bumps into her in the street with her children, and she stops agreeing to see him as a client. So he switches his attention to a student more than thirty years younger than himself, and begins—well, Lurie might call it an affair, but it is something colder and creepier than that. Even Lurie describes the sex as “not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core.” The student goes to the university authorities to complain about Lurie, and he loses his job in disgrace.
At this point, the novel seems to be about Lurie and his attitudes, with special reference to Romanticism, the life of the male mind, and its ability to coexist with utterly instrumental behavior toward women. But Disgrace takes a turn when Lurie goes to the country to stay with his lesbian daughter Lucy, who lives on a farm breeding dogs. South Africa is changing, and Lucy’s place in the bush is in no sense secure. Then the terrible thing at the heart of the story happens, and Lucy is raped by three black assailants. It seems that they may have been acting at the instigation, or at least with the collusion, of Petrus, the overseer of the farm. It turns out that Lucy is pregnant. She refuses to leave the farm or to have an abortion, and she is clearly in great danger. Petrus proposes a solution: he will marry Lucy and she will live under his protection—and the farm will legally be his. Meanwhile Lurie continues to meander along with his Byron opera, and finds a job helping a woman who runs a clinic where she euthanizes crippled dogs.
The shocking center of the book is Lucy’s rape and Petrus’s collusion in it, and use of it as a way of dispossessing her. There was a furor in Coetzee’s native South Africa over this, and the head of policy at the ANC attacked Disgrace. He claimed that the book “suggested it might be better that our white compatriots should emigrate because to be in post-apartheid South Africa is to be in ‘their territory,’ as a consequence …