John Maxwell Coetzee, a renowned writer and academic from South Africa, has recently moved to Australia where he has become a citizen. His background and experiences both in South Africa and outside have influenced greatly on the themes that he chooses to portray in all his literary works. For instance, in his narrative ‘Disgrace’, Coetzee seems inspired by the political situation in his home country South Africa with the happenings in the novel reflecting those of the post- apartheid South Africa.
The historical context of his motherland as well as his own experiences significantly influences the themes, characters and the writing style that he adopts in his works. The unfolds Coetzee’s background as reflected in the novel ‘Disgrace’ with the intention of determining its contribution to the account he presents in the novel.
Coetzee came into the international limelight through his constant criticism of the US policy in Vietnam thus explaining the candid manner in which the post apartheid South Africa stands out in the novel. In the account, Coetzee enters the mind of his main character, the twice-divorced scholar, David Lurie, telling the story of the experiences that the character goes through.
David Lurie, as portrayed by Coetzee struggles with the societal impediments at the expense of the fulfillment of his personal sexual desires. Upon his firing from his job as a professor in Cape Town, he instead decides to go and live with his daughter, a Romantic literature specialist, in Salem. A worse experience enters when violence attacks and Lucy Lurie, the daughter, is gang-raped by three black men.
The crime and poverty depicted in this novel reflect the real incidences of post apartheid South Africa with the rates doubling each passing day. Murders and carjacking rates increased especially during the years after Nelson Mandela became the president. This depicts the manner of reception of the novel by the South African government: It suffered a good deal of criticism based on its portrayal of the country as in a pessimistic condition.
The writing style that Coetzee uses in this novel is that of third person narration. He does this deliberately with the intention of portraying fine details as the style gives him the chance to present not only Lurie’s spoken words but also his thoughts.
With the style, Coetzee stands a good position to depict clearly the context of the story, which seems inspired by his history while in South Africa. Since Lurie’s experiences, passions, desires and discourse guide the audience into understanding the conditions as they stood then, Coetzee’s input appears clear in each one of them.
The characters that Coetzee creates in this novel seem inspired by the conditions that he feels make sense to him. For instance, the main character David Lurie in this novel stands as a university Professor the same as Coetzee himself. This shows how Coetzee tells the story in the context that he understands best. This character’s discourse is scholarly and he is generally portrayed as a thinking character.
To some extent, the reader can argue that Coetzee gets the chance to tell his own story through the character of David Lurie. The claim stands out through certain events that shape the character’s life.
For instance, despite his specialty being in Romantic poetry in the university where he teaches, he receives a demotion into a Communications professor with only one elective course to teach per semester because of the demolition of his department of modern languages based on the policies issued by the government to rationalize educational resources.
This indicates the beginning of the professor’s displacement long before he chooses to go to exile in Salem. Associating the experiences of Lurie to his general life reveals his spending of most of his career years teaching in alien countries rather than his own and later his adoption of a new nationality. The professor David Lurie has experienced divorce two times, a case that also rhymes with the life of Coetzee.
The historical racial tensions that dominated the post apartheid South Africa form a very important discussion in this novel. However, despite his absence at that particular time of happening of these injustices, the experiences of the whites in the hands of black criminals was indescribable.
Considering that Coetzee had relatives back in South Africa, he constantly followed the social and political happenings in South Africa from abroad. In the novel, Lurie’s daughter has to give up her sexual freedom to pay the price of owning property in her own country. Lurie says that it was “…a risk to own anything: a car, a pair of shoes, and a packet of cigarettes. Not enough to go around, not enough cars, shoes, cigarettes” (Coetzee 245).
Her sexual orientation provides the evidence that Coetzee creates characters to represent highly sensitive matters such as human rights. He in fact stands out as a strong crusader of human rights and equality regardless of the person’s ethnicity, sexual orientation or political ideologies.
Having a clear knowledge of the background of Coetzee is inevitable when one wants to understand the book, which reflects his experiences and ideologies. This stands out through his style of writing, the characters that he creates in the book and through the themes that he tackles.
Coetzee, John. Disgrace. London: Secker & Warburg, 1999.