Forced to leave his job over a sexual harassment scandal, a disgraced university professor goes to live on a farm with his daughter, who leads a pastoral life.
“Disgrace,” by Nobel Prize-winner J.M. Coetzee (pronounced: kut-SEE-uh), like the “Life and Times of Michael K,” one of his earlier books, revolves around ordinary people, who have spirits that are far from the ordinary.
They’re heroic because they’re incorruptible; outstanding, because they’re unbreakable. Distinguished by their unyielding adherence to their values, they stand tall no matter how towering the wall of adversity staring them in their faces. No incentive is potent enough to lure them into changing their way of life.
The hero of “Disgrace,” David Lurie, is a man of letters, a scholar, and that of “Life and Times of Michael K”, Michael K, is an illiterate municipal gardener.
Lurie’s daughter, Lucy is a rebel of a sort, a lesbian hippie, who’s embraced rural living and settled on a patch of land, bound by the bounties of nature. Independent and self-reliant, she grows and sells her own vegetables and flowers and rears animals.
On the face of it, the lead characters of these two works are not alike. On a deeper level, however, a common trait binds the three: it’s their refusal to surrender what they believe in.
While in Lurie’s case, it’s his lust for feminine beauty, in Michael K’s, it’s his grip on a boundless freedom, unfettered by all social institutions and structures.
Lucy will not relinquish what she perceives as her responsibility to uphold peace and order in a climate, which is precariously unpredictable and hazard-prone.
Lurie’s relentless womanizing, which culminates in a short-lived and a one-sided affair with one of his students, costs him his employment, his reputation, his earnings.
But that isn’t a jolt enough to cause him to obliterate her from his thoughts, just as an incident as violent as a gang-rape isn’t a trauma enough to cause Lucy to flee the country. These individuals are unbending and fear nothing.
Coetzee’s stories are set in South Africa, written both against the backdrop of the apartheid as well in the period after that. Yet, remarkably, his prose never reveals the race and ethnicity of his characters, black or white.