Blessed with a great subject, afflicted with it too, J.M. Coetzee has remade its meanings in the light of metaphor often no further from us than our own bodies. Sometimes he has shaped his awakenings and journeys as if to invest the facts in his fiction with allegory or fable rather than to document South Africa literally. Who are the native invaders waiting to regain “the land we have raped,” in Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), and where is the “Empire”? The aging magistrate who serves it in “shame” and “disgrace”–and rebels and is tortured–escapes to cultivate a nameless desert, to remember pain, dread, grief, tyranny, sexual love and courage, “if there is ever anyone in some remote future interested to know the way we lived.” Even an actual South Africa of civil war, prison camps and threatening roads in Life and Times of Michael K (1983) takes on an enclosed infrareality. This through its protagonist, who tries to move his dying mother to the country and at the end survives alone and hidden; marginal, mentally slow (we are told), a worker, significantly a gardener (a theme in Coetzee); persistent against affront like Beckett’s travelers in some core of being that is felt in the very sentences.
These sentences are compact, specific, dry for all their sensuousness and deeper desire. In his 1999 introduction to the World’s Classics Robinson Crusoe, Coetzee praises journeyman Defoe’s empirical prose, this “impersonator” forging a confessional “fake autobiography” that can’t quite bear its added cargo, an allegory of repentance. Coetzee, by far the greater cargo-handler, retold that colonialist story in Foe (1986) from the point of view of a castaway woman who has taken over responsibility for the real story. Also for getting Foe (Defoe’s patronymic) to write it. Responsibility also for the displaced black man Friday (his tongue cut out, apparently by his late master). Thus emerge themes of powerlessness, speechlessness, race framed by gender. And, in the strange new version, invented freedoms through which (as Coetzee has said elsewhere) stories with their “irresponsibility, or better, responsibility toward something that has not yet emerged,” can react to the pain of human life that would be overwhelming otherwise.
In Age of Iron (1990) a dying woman finds her Cape Town neighborhood disintegrating into street violence that brings apartheid literally home to her. And with it the need to speak in one’s own voice uncensored, not under duress; to know what one thinks and to place oneself among others. This is action of a kind. Almost a decade later, his main character again an academic, Coetzee takes action further. In his latest novel, Disgrace, he asks again the secular and always political question What is to be done? And answers it in such meager choices that the reader may mistake the ceremony emerging.
The politics this time are postapartheid, a new order of political correctness and at first a somewhat predictably sketched wasteland popular culture. But from the city the story moves to the situation in the countryside, anarchy largely unpoliced, land and power changing hands, the racial majority finding itself. Propelled like tragedy or melodrama at times, the narrative is also Professor David Lurie’s slow progress toward a different life. The meaning of this progress is everyday yet mysterious–ambiguous as the book’s title, whose irony may be signaled by its presence in tiny black print at the center of the dustjacket’s white expanse.
Two decisions focus the story, one early, one late. They seem passive. David loses (or leaves) his job, though he could have fought for it. Had up before a university committee on charges of sexual harassment (also faking the student’s grade when she didn’t show for an exam), David declines even to read the statement by the girl, Melanie. His frankness is not especially humble. “I plead guilty to both charges. Pass sentence and let us get on with our lives.”
But the committee, which has previously dismissed his philosophical “reservations” about the hearing and confined it to the legal issues, now requires a confession. The women on the committee want a mea culpa if not blood, a display of contrition that, one of the men urges, could save David’s job. (“Your case is not unique.”) David sticks to his guns. He acted on erotic impulse. He will not seek counseling. Coetzee gives you a sinking feeling, some new risk compounded by the mixed motives of the committee and the punitive show the undergraduate community is waiting for (during Rape Awareness Week, as it happens). To the student newspaper David replies that he has no regrets, he was “enriched” by the experience with Melanie. “your days are numbered, casanova,” reads a message under his door. A statement prepared for him to sign in a last-ditch spirit of “repentance” confuses what, to his mind, was a perfectly sufficient secular plea before a secular tribunal: “Repentance is neither here nor there. Repentance belongs to another world, to another universe of discourse.” That other “world” will shadow David clear to the end–past the trashing of his car and his house and the physical threats and much worse.