Monday, July 13, 2015

Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee

I just finished reading, back-to-back, two books set deep in Africa. While I won't review the other one (The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad) because of not properly understanding it, I will take a jab at Coetzee's Disgrace. Perhaps, I would never have ventured to think that I would read - and even enjoy - two books from Africa's roots, but both took me by surprise and were extremely pleasant reads. Mostly I tend to eschew any and all forms of <exotic topics, Chinese, Indian, South-American or otherwise. So what, if I did not choose the most experimental books for my African venture - The Heart of Darkness is apparently up there with Moby Dick for fame and artful pretense - it's often a good idea to start with the basics.

Disgrace is nothing if not a masterpiece. I wouldn't dream of contradicting both the Nobel prize committee or the Booker prize. It is one of those novels that is not overly complicated, doesn't demand arcane knowledge of the general arts from the reader but is still subtle and beautiful in unpredictable ways. Coetzee's ability to put in only what is necessary shines here brighter than ever. His themes explore apartheid and race in South Africa, but not in a judgmental or awkward way. His words excite experienced readers but lend themselves well to novices.s

The story revolves around David Lurie, a professor of languages in Cape Town. He goes through an ill-advised affair with one of his students and is expelled. He takes up semi-permanent residence with his sister on a farm. I won't discuss the plot more than that (I guess I rarely do) to save the surprises and shocks for future readers. The plot is heavy, without being heavy-handed. The writing, while impeccable, can make you think at times that writing is simply the act of putting words one after the other. Coetzee makes it seem so easy.

At this point in my reviews, I often roll out a few gripes I had with whatever novel I happened to read. Not so today. Coetzee does not give room for gripes. While some may dislike the discussion of racial tensions, none should deny the writer his voice. The characters are not saints, but they are neither completely sinners. None of it is black and white and Coetzee, more than anyone else, is able to describe that world in precious detail.

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