Each is maimed in a different way, and each reverts to type in responding to the assault. It will take more arrogance, more reactive anger, more humiliation before Lurie comes to understand that he has dealt himself not merely out of a job, but out of the game of life. His could be the story of any man who has grown so accustomed to unchallenged power that he cannot give way, cannot move with the times, but it has an urgency that’s entirely specific to his country‘s recent history. Lurie’s prideful refusal to repent in public echoes the intransigent cynicism that moved South African President F.W. de Klerk, when brought before the new regime‘s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to deny many of the indisputably justified charges against his apartheid regime, while former President P.W. Botha contemptuously refused to show up. True repentance, Lurie’s ordeal tells us, can never be merely institutional -- it comes in the small, compensatory acts of daily living.
“Realism,” Coetzee once wrote in an essay, “is premised on the idea that ideas have no separate existence, can only exist in things.” His pitiless gaze burrows so deep inside his characters that, whether or not you take them to your heart, you can‘t write them off. They’re too surprising. Lucy‘s response to her attackers would make any American feminist, perhaps these days any American woman, throw up her hands in horror. Certainly it baffles and angers her father. Yet if Lurie, first stunned and then vengeful, is a mirror of the post-apartheid state of shock in which his country finds itself, Lucy embodies a conciliatory spirit that may be white South Africa’s last hope for peaceful coexistence with the peoples it has for so long, and with such savagery, oppressed. The mad wisdom of her eventual course of action implies an appreciation of just how far backward the oppressors will have to bend in order to make amends. For Lurie, son of a generation hardened by wielding absolute power, everything must be lost before something is gained.
Before the reckoning is over, he will have slept with -- and, more significantly, befriended -- a woman who in his former life he would have found physically and intellectually repellent; will have learned from her, and from Lucy, to care for the world‘s most wretched rejects; will have shifted the focus of his projected opera from Byron to the poet’s discarded lover, Theresa. He will have discovered sympathy and -- in the most concrete way, and where he least expected to find it -- a kind of love that‘s freely given without thought of return. Which may be a beginning, for him and for South Africa.