J.M. Coetzee’s award-winning novel Disgrace offered a disturbing insight into the soul of modern South Africa. The screen version does not disappoint and features an outstanding performance from John Malkovich as the disgraced professor whose personal life reflects the turmoil of a country in transition. Dismissed from his university, David Lurie (Malkovich) decides to visit his daughter at a remote farm in the eastern Cape that she shares with a trusted black worker. When they are savagely attacked by three black youths, David is finally confronted by the realities of a South Africa where the old rules no longer apply.
I have been looking forward to this for some time. Coetzee is one of my favourite writers; Diary of a Bad Year, Youth, Master of Petersburg and Waiting for the Barbarians are phenomenal works of fiction. But I have mixed feelings about Disgrace (which, incidentally, was chosen as the best English novel of the past 25 years by top writers and critics). Here is what I wrote in a Facebook review:
I’ve long admired Coetzee’s forays into the heart of darkness; his capacity to raise unsettling questions about power in human relations and his characteristic pared down style. But for all the hype, his phenomenal knack for allegory fails him in Disgrace. The two different responses to an ugly incident — the rape of the protagonist’s daughter by three black South Africans — are equally wrong headed: the protagonist sinks into racial stereotypes and despondency; the daughter sees it as a historically inevitability.
In so doing, her phlegmatic liberal tolerance is no less racist, as she sees violence and rape as the black man’s wont. Leaving aside the moral question — how noble is it to allow rapists free, indeed to protect them? — one wonders how a palpably allegorical story about race and white injustice invariably presents every black person in the story as menacing and immoral. Every white person, including the eminently unpleasant protagonist, on the other hand, is endowed with some degree of ethical consciousness. It is not so much the lack of resolution, the open endedness, that ultimately lets Disgrace down, but the apparent foreclosure of a possibility that the two races could transcend their historically determined fates.