South Africa's leading novelist takes award for second time after the jury splits

A teller of spare and haunting fables that carry weight of history
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The Independent Culture

J M COETZEE, who has won this year's Booker Prize with his novel Disgrace , is well established as the most important novelist based in South Africa. His eight novels, beginning with Dusklands in 1974, have crossed centuries and continents. The characters have ranged from an 18th-century Robinson Crusoe in Foe to the voice of an American apologist in Vietnam, from a Boer farmer to a rootless Cape vagrant in Life and Times of Michael K , to some invented episodes in the life of Dostoevsky. His other books are In the Heart of the Country , Waiting For the Barbarians , Age of Iron , and The Master Of Petersburg .

J M COETZEE, who has won this year's Booker Prize with his novel Disgrace , is well established as the most important novelist based in South Africa. His eight novels, beginning with Dusklands in 1974, have crossed centuries and continents. The characters have ranged from an 18th-century Robinson Crusoe in Foe to the voice of an American apologist in Vietnam, from a Boer farmer to a rootless Cape vagrant in Life and Times of Michael K , to some invented episodes in the life of Dostoevsky. His other books are In the Heart of the Country , Waiting For the Barbarians , Age of Iron , and The Master Of Petersburg .

Coetzee's theme is colonialism and those who suffer from its fallout. He is not a polemicist but a maker of spare, haunting fables that carry the weight of history and recent revolutions in their narratives of conflict and dispossession. A constant theme is the symbolism of parent and child as emblems of colonists and colonised.

His often glum subject matter is leavened by the spare clarity of his prose, seen at its best in Disgrace . The novel is set five years after South Africa's first democratic elections, and tells the story of David Lurie, a 50-something Cape Town lecturer who has an affair with a student called Melanie. Summoned before a committee, he is accused of harassment and dismissed.

He decamps to the eastern Cape where his lesbian daughter Lucy works as a subsistence farmer. In Mandela's South Africa everything has changed: she has a black landowner, for whom David Lurie also works. Then one day Lucy is raped by three black men and her father set on fire, but they survive. Lucy refuses to condemn the act, and sees it instead as the price to pay "for staying on".

Elizabeth Lowry wrote, in the London Review of Books : " Disgrace is the best novel Coetzee has written. It is a chilling, spare book, the work of a mature writer who has refined his textual obsessions to produce an exact, effective prose and condensed his thematic concern with society into a deceptively simple story."

Boyd Tonkin, literary editor at The Independent , and one of the Booker judges, agreed. "It's grim but fantastically well done. Every word is beautifully controlled, images from the early pages recur throughout the novel. It is a profoundly political book, but also a beautifully sustained prose poem."

Coetzee shuns prize givings. An intensely private man, he stayed away from the Booker award ceremony in 1983, when he took the prize against the stiff opposition of Graham Swift and Salman Rushdie, and he did so again last night.

His agent Bruce Hunter said: "He takes his teaching commitments very seriously. He'd love to have been here but he couldn't leave a week's teaching in Chicago."

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