Salvation in South Africa
Beyond, too, the words in which he later describes to his daughter Lucy the deal he was offered--"Re-education. Reformation of the character.... It reminds me too much of Mao's China. Recantation, self-criticism, public apology.... I would prefer simply to be put against a wall and shot." By then David has left Cape Town without hearing the verdict. He has gone to stay temporarily with Lucy on her farm, a smallholding where she grows flowers and vegetables for the local market and boards dogs. Small may not be beautiful here, but the work is tangible. David finds things to do. The dogs like him, he falls asleep in one of the kennels; he asks if he might become Lucy's "dog-man." With Lucy the animal rights issue flares up. Her friend Bev gives David a nonpaying job at the animal shelter. At home David gives Lucy's helper Petrus a hand--a "historical piquancy. Will he pay me a wage for my labour?" (David's inveterate irony tells the reader Petrus is black.) Lucy lives apparently in a lesbian relationship with another young woman who happens to be away on a trip when the displaced parent turns up (Coetzee managing things in a narrative present tense now a little routine forty years after Updike's fresh and compelling use of it in Rabbit, Run). David gets to know Lucy again; she is kind to him. He thinks about her, how she takes care of herself, what species of love lesbians share. Isn't it dangerous out here on the Eastern Cape? Coetzee understands the distance between father and daughter, the friction, the concern, their everyday talk detailed, very serious, "English" (Coetzeean). What will happen? What is happening? But now comes an event so shocking that one may miss the subtlety with which Coetzee assimilates it into the life that just goes on.
One would think that a white woman raped by three (or at least two) black intruders while her father is torched and locked in the lav would be a pretty major event. Lucky to be alive, David recovers slowly, his hair burned off, his face disfigured. It is Bev, the vet, who tends his wounds, this grotesque, this Coetzee Everyman. What actually happened? What did he witness, shut up elsewhere in the house? He is a father. He worries about the trauma. Pregnancy. HIV. The future. Lucy enjoins him to tell only his own story. He finds her distant. He tries to trace "the gang of three." One of them, hardly more than a boy, whose initiation, if it was that, included shooting the dogs, proves to be a relative of next-door neighbor Petrus, who was away the weekend of the attack.
The boy turns up at a party Petrus gives. Lucy wants to leave; Petrus deflects David's outrage with doubts and trade-offs; Lucy won't let David call the police. Is this the way "to make up for the wrongs of the past"? he asks. The second pivotal decision approaches with its answer.
When his life fell apart, David, a professor of Romantic poetry, had been preparing to write a chamber opera about Byron. It is one somewhat droll strain in the novel. Revised and revised in his mind, it is something he has no passion for now, this creative project. Is that it for the arts? The study of dead writers, as David sees it now. "His whole being is gripped by what happens in the theater," but it is Bev's operating theater, where much of the work is putting superfluous dogs down. Is it cruel, or kind, or nothing? If in their last moments they are not eased by David, it is because he gives off "the smell of shame." The animals "feel the disgrace of dying." Not their "saviour," he is prepared to take care of them once Bev is done with them. "He does not understand what is happening to him." He has become "a dog undertaker." The reader may agree that "there must be other, more productive ways of giving oneself to the world," even sit down with the Byron again. But that is not this character's path, Coetzee's character on a fairly short leash.
Lucy wanted to know why Melanie had denounced him. "I didn't have a chance to ask." But we know he did. Time David stopped preying on children, Lucy observes. A crime against a child. Women on the committee implied as much. David's ex-wife and others insinuate it. Where's it coming from, this stigmatic indictment? David has half bought into it, depressed, his womanizing fires banked at age 52. Once he made love to Melanie when she didn't want to do it: "Not rape, not quite that." Yet the third and final time, the sex was good. It was after she had crashed on him and asked to stay the weekend (having trouble with her boyfriend, whatever). Three decades younger, Melanie is 20. The power was not all on David's side, her teacher smitten and foolish, lacking in integrity, but not insensitive (the conversation limited, I kept feeling, by the author). Does Coetzee set his character up?