Last year, while doing my daily rounds on the blogs, I can across a review of this book on Steph and Tony Investigate, one of my all time favorite blogs. It was a rare double review, and I read the thoughts of Steph and her husband, Tony, with growing intrigue. The main thing I took away from their review of Disgrace was that this was in intensely powerful book, and that it was such a haunting read that it left both of them stunned for different reasons. When I decided to pick up this book on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I had no idea of its all-consuming raw power. I sat quietly for hours flipping the pages, becoming more and more carried away by the profound and piercing story that was unfolding before me. I’ve purposely left most of the aspects of the plot summary rather vague, as I think in the case of this book, it is necessary. In no way would I want to spoil this book for another reader.
The early part of this book deals with David's struggle at the college and reveals how he gets himself into such a mess. It was very hard to like the man, for a lot of different reasons. A main point of distaste was his all-consuming need to assert himself as a virile and sexual man, and his completely inconsiderate actions towards the women whom he pursues. David is overly concerned, and some may even say preoccupied, with his virility and goes to great lengths to prove to himself that he is desirable to women. He blames his actions and behaviors on the touch of Eros that consumes his life. In this way, he takes no responsibility for the things he does and the problems he causes. He’s proud of these things and almost even glib about the way he gets women to succumb to him. His behavior towards the women who cross his path seems almost like a subtle form of dominance and territorial behavior. As things move from bad to worse in David's life, this attitude is the one thing that prevails, and though it’s sometimes masked by circumstance, it’s always there, lurking behind other things. It made David a tough character to sympathize with, but the events of the plot unfold so painfully and brilliantly that I found myself deeply sorry for him and for the course his life takes.
Much of the cripplingly painful elements of this story surround two very different and complex situations that arise during David's time on the eastern Cape. The first revolves around the attack that is perpetrated upon David and his daughter. Though at first it was hard to see how this incident was going to influence the characters and what it would do to the remaining plot, eventually things stretched out into the horrible and panoptic situation that ultimately left David and his daughter broken semblances of what they had formerly been. I must admit that while I was deeply moved by these sections, I also understood that I was probably failing to really grasp the repercussions of what had happened and the ways they were going about dealing with it. On the surface, my awareness of their plight flowered painfully, but even now, days later, I’m still contemplating what all these things mean, both about the attackers and the victims of this particular crime. There comes a point in the story where everything reaches a horrible crescendo, but it’s almost impossible to understand all this entails with only a cursory first reading of this book. The impressions I’m left with speak to my heart of exploitation and retribution, shame in its many forms, and subjugation.
The second situation that this book tackles has to do with animal rights. When David begins his work at the clinic, he’s forced to do some very unkind things to the animals he comes in contact with. Mainly it’s the country's many dogs that bear the brunt of this harsh treatment. I don't really want to give too much away other than to say that reading these sections was heartbreaking and horrible at times. It made me want to go search out my dogs, who were lazily lolling about the house, and give them hugs and scratches and tell them how much I love them. It made me want to cry. Disgrace makes the argument that the plight of some animals in South Africa is very bleak indeed, and forced me to deal head-on with some uncomfortable situations and ideas. While these messages were be brilliantly delivered, I also found them to be caustic and painful.
There’s not much more to be said about this book without giving it all away. In Coetzee's neat and spare prose, he manages to rip through all of his reader's comfort zones and take them to a place so visceral and exposed as to leave them speechless. It was an extremely powerful book and one that constantly shocked and surprised me. A lot of it was not comfortable, and though it was filled with messages, it wasn’t typically preachy. I think much of the artistry of this book was the fact that the language and style of the storytelling belied the pathos of the story being told. Simple in its construction, the book was aching in its implications. If I haven't said so outright yet, this was a brilliantly constructed masterpiece of a book. It sends its reader on a trip that’s hard to forget and even harder to emotionally comprehend. A tightly constructed and fantastically unforgiving read. Highly recommended.