Disgrace by John W. Coetzee

Disgrace by John W. Coetzee. This book hit me hard. It’s one of those novels that leaves you reeling. Another one that had a similar effect on me was “Blindness” by Jose Saramago. I remember feeling down for days after finishing it.

“Disgrace” is all about things going terribly wrong. It asks the question: when life takes a bad turn, can it get any worse? And the answer always seems to be yes.

The main character, David Lurie, is a 53-year-old literature professor at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He’s been married and divorced twice, lives alone, and leads a double life – he’s an academic by day and sees a prostitute named Soraya weekly until she suddenly becomes unavailable.

After Soraya, David starts a relationship with one of his students, Melanie, who is 30 years younger. They have sex multiple times, but it’s clear from Melanie’s behavior that she’s not entirely willing. While it might not be rape by the strict definition, there’s a hint of power harassment floating in the atmosphere.

Things spiral out of control when Melanie (or Melanie’s family?), files a complaint against Prof. Lurie with the university. A disciplinary committee is assembled to deal with the case. He refuses to apologize and is kicked out of his job, realizing his academic career is over.

David decides to visit his lesbian daughter Lucy, who lives in a nearby city. The backdrop of South Africa’s post-apartheid society adds tension to the story. There are hints of racial animosity and a pervasive sense of danger – characters keep guns at home, and everyone is on edge.

One day, three men follow David and Lucy home, break in, rape Lucy, and attack David, leaving him severely injured. While Lucy is reluctant to report the rape, David undergoes a profound change. He realizes his own impotence and despair, feeling utterly incapable of helping his daughter. He knows a fast decline will take him to become an old and broke man. Toward the end of the book, David reflects about his life choices and ends up going with a prostitute once again.

Despite the heavy subject matter, Coetzee’s writing is stunning. It’s no wonder he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003. This is the first book of his that I’ve read, but I’m eager to explore more of his work.

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