Posted on February 7, 2005

Post-Apartheid in Black and White

Carol Iannone, American Conservative, Feb. 14

The 2004 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Elfriede Jelinek, an Austrian writer whose fiction seems to consist of little more than radical feminist propaganda. In citing Jelinek for the prize, the Nobel Committee lauded her anti-male vision as revelatory of the very foundations of our society. As the committee’s website admiringly puts it, “Jelinek lets her social analysis swell to a fundamental criticism of civilization by describing sexual violence against women as the actual template for our culture.”

Got that? The most prestigious award-granting organization in the Western world has no problem with the notion that the very foundation of our culture is sexual violence against women. Of course, extolling the total denigration of the West is not new for the Nobel Committee. A year earlier the committee lauded the work of South African novelist J.M. Coetzee for its “ruthless . . . criticism of the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of western civilisation.” But Coetzee (pronounced kut-SEE-uh), whose artistic vision is complex if not particularly likable, must have presented a challenge to the Nobel Committee with his very un-PC novel Disgrace, a book so offensive to the South African regime that the ruling African National Congress officially denounced it as racist before the country’s Human Rights Commission. Nevertheless, it is clear the book was a major factor in the committee’s decision to give the prize to Coetzee, since both the original citation from the Norwegian Nobel Committee and the presentation speech delivered at the ceremony on behalf of the Swedish Academy made reference to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, organized in 1995 under the new government to address the human-rights abuses committed by both sides during apartheid. This suggests that the committee had Disgrace, Coetzee’s only novel about post-apartheid South Africa, very much in mind.

Disgrace aroused a raging controversy in South Africa when it was published in 1999, won an unprecedented second Booker Prize for its author, and became the first of his novels to achieve notable sales in his native land. The portrayal in Disgrace of a violent, lawless post-apartheid South Africa “was not politically correct,” Afrikaner newspaper editor Tim DuPlessis remarked to the New York Times at the time of the Nobel announcement, adding, “Some thought South Africa didn’t need a renowned author sending out a negative message about the country at that time.” The problem with the novel begins with its portrayal of black-on-white violence in the new South Africa but goes much further than that, painting a grim picture of majority rule as, in effect, the displacement of “white” or “Western” standards of justice and rationality with a “black” hegemony based on vengeance, violence, and fear.

John Maxwell (formerly Michael) Coetzee was born in 1940 of Afrikaner and English heritage and has taught literature in South Africa and the United States, most recently at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. He is now affiliated with the University of Adelaide in Australia, where he emigrated, it is said, in response to the bruising battle Disgrace provoked in his native land.

Disgrace is written in a deliberately hard, dry, ungenerous idiom, albeit one intense and gripping in its own sullen way. “English is an unfit medium for the truth of South Africa,” declares the novel’s main character, David Lurie. Lurie (whose apparently Jewish identity figures only in the background) is a middle-aged professor at Cape Town University College, which has been made over to serve the newly enfranchised populations under post-apartheid “rationalization.” As a result, the college is now an intellectually threadbare technical school. When he loses his job over an affair with a student, Lurie goes to rethink his life at his daughter Lucy’s small farm in the countryside, where she raises flowers and cares for dogs. There he endures his disgrace, undergoing a thorough divestment of all his former privileges and adjusting to a new, humbler life.

Some time after his arrival, the farm is invaded by three black strangers who rape Lucy, ransack her house, shoot her dogs, and set her father afire, leaving him with a disfigured ear, a further divestment of his former self. Lurie wants his daughter to report the crime and bring the perpetrators to justice. But Lucy decides that it would be impossible for her to continue living in such a remote and lawless area if she called in the police, as she would be open to future reprisals.

Far from seeking justice, she decides to bear the child she is carrying as a result of the rape. She also deeds her share of the property to Petrus, her former assistant turned coproprietor thanks to post-apartheid land adjustments, and agrees to become part of his extended family, in effect his third wife, in order to secure enough protection to continue to live on the land she loves. The clear implication is that the attack was part of a plan by Petrus to gain complete control of her property. “They see me as owing something,” she says of her assailants. “They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors.” Her father at first objects but then comes to accept the new arrangements. The closing scenes of the novel show father and daughter both reduced to a kind of speechless submission, stripped of control over their lives, dependent on the menacing black power all around them, yet strangely serene and content.