Disgrace, winner of the 1999 Booker Prize, deals explicitly with J.M.Coetzee's homeland after Apartheid. As in Waiting for the Barbarians, exquisite poetic economy complements the social relevancy of this South African author. These are not one-sided protest novels or facile reparations; far from it, Coetzee gives full range to humanity's conflictive depths, utilizing literature's capacity for interior description to its utmost. Edges of civilization and barbarity, of dominion and control are where his insight shines with investigative brilliance.
David Lurie, a white university professor expelled after a student affair, constitutes the novel's arrogant, flawed center. While regrouping with his daughter Lucy on her struggling country farm, an assault by local blacks derails their lives and shifts the novel into high register. “Lurie has the sense that, inside him, a vital organ has been bruised, abused, perhaps even his heart. For the first time he has a sense of what it will be like to be an old man, tired to the bone, without hope, without desires, indifferent to the future.” What seems reporterly in initial description quickly accumulates symbolic potency: “In the middle of the night he is woken by a flurry of barking. One dog in particular barks insistently, mechanically, without cease; the others join in, quiet down, then, loth to admit defeat, join in again.” Even the animals evidence psychological depth, and even they will not escape the rooted violence of African race relations.
Coetzee seems too wary—or weary—for hope, but a sly ironic awareness in his voice often suggests otherwise. Despite its gravity, Disgrace is a sheer pleasure to read. He unites a novelist's sensitivity to the human condition with a poet's eye for detail, inflection, and shades of meaning; a combination that renders this tale convincingly.