Books: Sensitivity training with dogs

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by J M Coetzee

Secker pounds 14.99

With its pared-down, scalpel clarity and its mood of unrelieved sobriety, this novel says something close to the bone about the state of contemporary South Africa. It does so by choosing as its main character a representative of a dying class: a 53-year-old white male academic. This class is as surely being taken over by events as the Pasternaks and the Tolstoys of pre-revolutionary Russia. A tide is rolling against its liberal reformism, its high-minded, minority non-racism and its traditional notions of academe. Its intellectually elite context is being "transformed" out of existence.

Professor David Lurie, Cape Town academic and scholar of the English Romantics, has found his literature department rationalised and downsized into Communications I and Communications II - subjects which he is required to teach, but from which he feels entirely alien. After two failed marriages and the sudden collapse of his conveniently no-strings-attached relationship with an alluring Cape Muslim call-girl, he contemplates the example of Origen's self-castration expedient, but falls, instead, into a brief, unwise affair with one of his girl students. Twenty-year-old Melanie Isaacs attends his Romantics class - the weekly "special subject" hour he has been permitted to retain.

Ms Isaacs is a young woman with nothing in particular to recommend her, other than youth. She is a skinny, crop-haired, un-special sort of girl who draws him with the power of her large eyes and her flair for bold, unusual clothes. She even lacks the quality he normally finds essential for attractiveness in women, namely wit. With his customary unnerving verbal economy, Coetzee conveys the hopelessness of the relationship in three lines at the first intimate encounter. The professor is a man whose whole being resonates with the harmonies of The Prelude; a man who builds an entire lecture round Wordsworth's use of the phrase "usurped upon" in the account of the revelation of Mont Blanc. Quite naturally, he therefore asks Melanie about her literary "passions". Frowning in puzzlement, she replies, "We did Adrienne Rich and Toni Morrison in my second year. And Alice Walker. I got pretty involved, but I wouldn't call it passion, exactly." Yet the tone is never judgemental. Lurie and Melanie are simply presented, dead-pan, as persons formed by different contexts.

The affair accelerates Lurie's inevitable propulsion towards redundancy and ensures that his career terminates in disgrace, as Melanie's student boyfriend brings matters to a head and the professor is hauled before a commission of enquiry. Behaving with stubborn, high-minded self-destructiveness, Lurie refuses to issue a statement of remorse and will not submit to counselling, community service, or "sensitivity training". The episode brings the first half of the novel to an end, but not before Coetzee has set up an implication of analogy with the last days of Byron, whose final affair in Italy Lurie has thoughts of turning into an opera. (A reader's first response here is disbelief, since Lurie is the most un-operatic of men, but this very point is used most effectively in the book's powerful conclusion.)

The second half of the story deals with Lurie's new life with his adult daughter Lucy, who manages a smallholding in an isolated Eastern Cape rural area. The place is becoming increasingly vulnerable to crime as the rural have-nots appear ever more desperate and more psychotic in their attempts to bring about redistribution. There is a violent attack upon the pair and, in the grim aftermath, the relationship deteriorates, as father and daughter have recourse to very different solutions. For this reader there was something unconvincingly Faulkneresque about the bizarre, abusive compromise Lucy finally chooses to make with her new, black, landowning neighbours, but the strength of the section is undeniable.

The book's triumph lies in the way its two parts are linked through Lurie's voluntary work in a poorly resourced rural animal clinic. The clinic has risen to fill a gap, since the local authority animal welfare services have collapsed. Here, neglect, malnutrition and redundancy among the animals of the dirt poor become the barometer for various human dilemmas at a time of dramatic social change. And it is here, working together with a dowdy and intellectually undistinguished 40-something woman, that the professor is, after all, purged and changed via community service; via "sensitivity training".

In the clinic's yard full of variously afflicted canines due for extermination, Lurie composes his opera libretto with the aid of a rubbishy banjo. He learns to stop imagining the opera as the crowning glory of his career. He knows, now, that it will never leave the page. But there is one little crippled dog for whom his croaky singing and tinny banjo have appeal and, in the vocabulary of his feelings for this doomed animal, he finally finds a place for the word "love".

A bleakly beautiful book, written predominantly in monosyllables, leaves the reader with one assuaging observation about life: "It gets harder all the time. Harder, yet easier too. One gets used to things getting harder." The book deserves prizes, as does the cover photograph, depicting a rickety, brindled lurcher bitch alone in a dust bowl with rusting machinery.