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Sex and other problems

Beyond shame and tragedy, a damaged survivor edges towards hope in the new South Africa. Paul Bailey praises a novel of quiet distinction

Paul Bailey
Saturday 03 July 1999 00:00 BST

Disgrace by J M Coetzee (Secker & Warburg, £14.99, 224pp)

Disgrace by J M Coetzee (Secker & Warburg, £14.99, 224pp)

Independent on Sunday review by Barbara Trapido

AT THE beginning of this painful novel, Professor David Lurie prides himself on having "solved the problem of sex rather well". He is 52, twice divorced, and no longer capable of, or willing to sustain, a deep emotional relationship. Each Thursday afternoon, he visits a woman who calls herself Soraya for professional purposes. They make love at a leisurely pace. He arrives at two pm and leaves 90 minutes later, having first paid her R400. He is content for another week. Next Thursday, he reflects, his problem will be solved again.

Lurie teaches Communications at the Technical University of Cape Town, more from duty than desire. His real interest is with the Romantic poets. He has written a book on Wordsworth, whose Prelude features large in the special course he is conducting for the benefit of a group of lacklustre students. He is also toying with the idea of an opera about Byron's affair with Teresa Guiccioli. He is on speaking terms with his second wife, whom he sees for a drink or a meal. His life is relatively settled.

Then, one Saturday morning, he catches sight of Soraya in the street. She has two small boys with her. The boys have "her lustrous hair and dark eyes". He realises, in an instant, that "they can only be her sons."Mother and children go into Captain Dorego's Fish Inn. They sit by the window. Lurie and Soraya share a glance, to Lurie's lasting regret. The following Thursday, in the anonymous hired apartment, the glance is not mentioned. He has seen the woman who isn't Soraya, and that intrusion means an end to Thursday afternoons. Lurie's problem has returned.

He becomes involved - and "involved" is entirely appropriate - with a pretty student named Melanie Isaacs. She is 20, with theatrical ambitions. She has read Adrienne Rich, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, but is finding it difficult to persevere with Wordsworth. Melanie has a boyfriend, who finds out that Lurie is sleeping with her. A scandal ensues. Lurie admits his guilt before a university committee, but won't apologise. He resigns, and drives off to the Eastern Cape, where his daughter, Lucy, lives on an isolated farm.

It is at this point that Disgrace turns into an altogether darker, more harrowing book. Lurie's love for his only child is, one might say, the saving grace of this disgraced man. She is lesbian, but now seems happy on her own. She grows fruit and vegetables which she sells in the market of a nearby town, and looks after other people's dogs in the kennels she runs.

Lurie eventually grows accustomed to the country routine, particularly when he starts assisting Bev Shaw, a friend of Lucy's, at her Animal Welfare Clinic. Petrus, Lucy's immediate neighbour, who was once called "boy" by the whites, does odd jobs for her. He is soon to be a landowner, under the new laws of the new South Africa.

Petrus leaves the area without warning, and during his absence three young blacks suddenly arrive. Lurie is, quite literally, locked in the lavatory while the men gang-rape Lucy. They steal his car, and attempt to set him alight with methylated spirits. He manages to put out the flames, but his scalp and an ear are seriously burned. Lurie's abiding concern is for his daughter's state of mind, for her welfare, for her soul. But she won't press charges against her attackers, and he cannot succeed in dissuading her.

Disgrace is a subtle, multi-layered story, as much concerned with politics as it is with the itch of male flesh. Coetzee's prose is chaste and lyrical without being self- conscious: it is a relief to encounter writing as quietly stylish as this. I was not totally convinced by Lurie's musical abilities, with regard to his proposed opera, but that is my sole complaint. The scenes at the animal clinic are wonderfully achieved, with Bev administering fatal drugs to the desperately sick and abandoned creatures, and Lurie taking their corpses to the incinerator at the local hospital.

Lurie's final gesture, to an injured dog who has befriended him, might seem ambivalent, but I think it suggests a state of grace. Of course it does.

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