The disgrace of being a victim

*Please Note: this review contains spoilers.

The first time I read Disgrace I hated it. It evoked so much anger and sadness I didn’t care if it was brilliant – I wrote it off as a horrible book. How could a woman feel that, because of apartheid, she should allow her rapists to get away with their crime? How could she allow the man who may have organised the attack to take over her farm? Why did the rapists have to shoot the dogs in their cages?

I didn’t want to see the movie, but a friend had a role in it and I felt obliged to watch it. I’m glad I did. After talking about it I realised that, although anger, disgust, and sadness were the emotions the story seeks to evoke, they’d obscured the ideas and insights offered. Of these there are many – I’ll have to stick to just a few.

Coetzee skilfully depicts some of the racial and power dynamics and attitudes at work in post-apartheid South Africa. As a 52-year old white male and an expert in Romantic poetry, David Lurie is out of date and out of place in this social and political landscape. However, he has no interest in adapting, believing that his temperament is fixed and that no one has any right to make him change. Elaine Rasool, the head of his department at Cape Tech, sees David as a “hangover from the past, the sooner cleared away the better.” Dawn, the secretary David sleeps with, has a view I’ve heard a few times – even though apartheid was morally bad, those were still, in some way, better days. In Dawn’s case, she believes the law was better enforced during apartheid; now it’s anarchy, and she wants to emigrate for the sake of her children.

In these attitudes is a reluctance or refusal to deal with the difficulties of SA today. Lucy’s approach on the other hand, is more complex, more practical, but also far harder to accept. As a white South African she sees herself ‘owing’ something for the privileges she enjoys, for the stolen land she lives on. She allows her rapists to get away with their crimes because she sees them as ‘debt collectors’. To her, violence is characteristic of  the place in which she lives, and if she wants to stay she must put up with it. Lucy, as Petrus says, is “forward-thinking”.

The injustice of this is very difficult to accept, and I personally cannot do it. Nevertheless, what I think is interesting here is the similarities between David and the rapists and how the reaction to the attack as a whole can be compared to ideas about apartheid today.

David draws a parallel with the rapists in his attitude toward sex – it is sex, not companionship he wants from women, he feels he has a right to pursue it, and uses whatever means he has to get it. In the past, his looks were enough. Now he pays for it, as he does with Soraya, or abuses his power as he does with Melanie. The difference between David and the three black rapists is that David has this financial and social power to wield. He can fork out R400 for a blissful afternoon, as a lecturer he can coerce a reluctant young student into sleeping with him. The three black men have only their physical power, and therefore resort to violence. The result is that, even though their attitudes are similar, David is seen merely as another womanising bastard, while the attackers are loathed as barbarians. Social circumstances make black stereotypes self-fulfilling prophesies.

The reader, rightfully, wants justice, making Petrus’s nonchalant attitude toward the attack infuriating. Yet his attitude is similar to the way many (privileged) South Africans view apartheid: it was bad, but it’s over now and we must all just get on with our lives. Now the tables are turned – the white man demands justice and the black man tells him to get over it.

The idea of ‘disgrace’ in which so much of the novel is steeped, is not what we expect or what it should be. With the exception of David’s disgrace after his affair with Melanie, it is the victims, not the perpetrators who are humiliated, broken down. The rapists leave Lucy a damaged and vulnerable woman; David is shamed by his inability to protect her and embarrassed by his physical wound; and of course apartheid has left millions disgraced by poverty, poor education and racial stereotypes.

In the end, I found that Disgrace had given me many tough questions to consider, but very few answers. Which is appropriate. There can be no easy solutions to healing the damage, the disgraces this country suffers from. One option, perhaps, is the course that David finds himself on – slowly broken down and humbled by his victimhood, by his time spent putting down stray dogs and cremating their bodies. He gives up on his grand opera, and starts from scratch with a simpler but more authentic one. He lets go of his lofty ideals, as he gives up the dog he was trying to save, and faces reality.

As brilliant as this book is, I would be reluctant to recommend it to most people, as it is painful to read, and a superficial reading could easily lead to racist interpretations. However, it’s an important novel, especially for South Africans, and I hope readers will do their best to endure the pain of it and take the time to consider its ideas.

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