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Disgraced in the new South Africa

Any fears that apartheid‘s demise might take the stuffing out of South Africa’s vibrantly politicized literature will be put to rest by J.M. Coetzee‘s brilliant new novel about a Cape Town professor who, following an affair with a student, undergoes a purgatory that burns far deeper than his dismissal from the university. Disgrace, which has made its author the first to receive two Booker Prizes (he won in 1983 for Life & Times of Michael K), is a page-turner that can be polished off in half a day. Then it should be read again, slowly, both for the austere elegance of Coetzee’s prose and as a parable of post-apartheid South Africa, where “transition” is a polite word for chaos, and the bitter legacy of institutionalized racism lingers on in random violence and hatred that‘s no longer disciplined by political organization.

That violence and hatred are addressed in Disgrace, but less to push forward the plot than to make waves -- breakers, really -- in an unexamined life. Like his equally distinguished countrywoman Nadine Gordimer, Coetzee has earned his right to make the personal political: For both writers, politics is specific, grounded in the individuality of people living out their lives, often cluelessly, weighed down by the illusions and rationalizations that kept apartheid in place for so many years.

A different apartheid afflicts David Lurie, a disaffected Anglo white who has set himself apart from all his fellows, whatever their color, and whose isolation has intensified an already chronic anachronicity. A professor of literature who specializes in Wordsworth and Byron, Lurie has reluctantly retooled as an adjunct lecturer in communications, to fit the brash new order of user-friendly higher education -- modeled, no doubt, on America’s. On this count, at least, one senses that Lurie has the sympathy of his author, who teaches general literature at Cape Town University. Still, Lurie is a hard man to like: A skirt chaser with two failed marriages under his belt, he finds himself, at 52, no longer attractive to the kind of women who in the past had reliably succumbed to his practiced advances. When his “entirely satisfactory” weekly trysts with a prostitute he thought genuinely liked him come to an abrupt end, he blithely moves on to seduce a coquettish but confused and vulnerable undergraduate less than half his age, who ends up filing a complaint against him.

There is, perhaps, no creature so deluded as an alienated sophisticate who believes he knows himself. Sounding off about the primacy of the soul to unappreciative students who sense his contempt for them, Lurie has no idea that he long ago traded his own spirit for a dreary, emotionally anesthetized existence. From his beloved romantic poets, Lurie has cultivated a philosophy of desire worthy of Woody Allen: Take what you want; be accountable to no one. So cocooned is he in ironic detachment that, when censured by the university, he accepts his sentence without a fight, but refuses to show the public contrition that might salvage his job, if not his reputation. And it is as nothing for this man, who has sloughed off most human attachments, to leave town and, armed with vague notes for an opera about Byron‘s last years in Italy, move in with the one person he believes he has loved well -- his daughter Lucy, a lesbian hippie who has opted out of the urbane society her parents represent to scratch out a living boarding dogs and growing produce in the Eastern Cape.

Lesbian hippie -- the reductive label no more describes this sturdy, opinionated, tolerant young woman than “chauvinist pig” does her flawed father. Arrogant lech though he is, Lurie genuinely believes in a world ruled by the gratification of desire. (He feels a fatherly protectiveness toward the student he seduced; it never occurs to him to ask himself whether she returned his feelings, or needed protection.) Like many cynics, he is at bottom a gaga romantic, and as such a dinosaur in a bureaucratic world. Though Lucy, a committed feminist, can hardly endorse his recent behavior, she gladly harbors him, perhaps sensing that her down-to-earth environment may offer him a new way of seeing.

Not that Coetzee, who’s the least sentimental of writers, euphemizes the countryside. There‘s nothing remotely bucolic about this arable land exhausted by overuse, or the scrawny mutts -- often abandoned, neglected or abused -- that Lucy boards, or the dank, rambling farmhouse she calls home. Yet they’re described with a visceral physicality that makes Lurie‘s anodyne city life look wan. It’s exactly here, among New Age animal-rights activists, recalcitrant old Afrikaaners and an emergent class of black landowners, that Lurie‘s lofty abstractions have no currency. It’s here that Lucy‘s enigmatic black former assistant, Petrus (Coetzee introduces no one by race, a strategic colorblindness balanced by Lurie’s instinctive stratification of everyone he meets), has become the co-proprietor of her land. And it‘s here, one terrifying afternoon, that a brutal, apparently impersonal attack by three black strangers traumatizes both father and daughter.

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.

DISGRACE | By J.M. COETZEE Viking | 220 pages | $24 hardcover