The Problem with J. M. Coetzee

The book Disgrace (1999) is mostly about a father and a daughter, not a typical father and not a typical daughter. The father’s name is David Laurie, he lives in South Africa and he is white. He is a disgraced University Professor who was forced to resign due to an unwelcomed encounter with a female student. His inability to cope with a change in his employment circumstances leads him to rural South Africa to stay with his daughter, Lucy. The two do not really get along, since her parent’s divorce; Lucy is friendly and polite but not terribly affectionate towards her father.

Adding to the complexity of the relationship, Lucy is a lesbian but her partner is away, thus allowing David at least a room in the farmhouse. David is slowly accepting his daughter, yet still has some disdain for her absent partner. The reader is left with the impression that Lucy and her partner have split, so father and daughter are single, alone and lonely. David has sold his house in the city, and he is living off the proceeds. Lucy tries to eke out a living in the landscape through hobby farming and raising stray dogs, her father among them.

There is a détente between the two lives until a fateful day when two black youths enter the house and rape Lucy, beat and burn David. This complicit attack has been arranged by Lucy’s neighbour, Petrus. He is a cunning man with an evil plan, scare Lucy off her land so that he may gain more acres to farm or even worse, coerce Lucy to marry him as his third wife, and usurp her and the land. This is black revenge against white land owners taken to an extreme level. Very slowly, both Lucy and David recover, but David cannot accept what has happened nor can he live with the consequences of the ‘new’ South Africa. Lucy prevents David from going to the Police, since they will do nothing. David tries to find some solace with yet another affair, this time with a local vet. Lucy, however, must now arrange for an abortion and still remain friendly with her neighbour and the rapists. In what must seem an act of great human courage or great human defeat, Lucy agrees to let Petrus farm her land while she keeps the farmhouse. Lucy loves the land and will not leave regardless of the price. David encourages Lucy to leave, to go to Europe, but she is here to stay. Therein lies the problem with J. M. Coetzee, he wilfully acquiesces the violence through Lucy’s capitulation and offers little redeeming alternative.

It could be argued that the author of Disgrace, J. M. Coetzee, also loved the land, but unlike Lucy, he left and immigrated to Australia. Now that apartheid is over and ‘truth and reconciliation’ is under way in the daily lives of the citizens of South Africa, it remains to be seen how a society so marred by the racial and economic hatreds of the past will deal with the ambitions of men like Petrus. We have witnessed the collapse of civility in Zimbabwe vis-à-vis black squatters and white farmers. Race, revenge and greed are everyday realities in these transitional locales.

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“The Return” by Joseph Conrad

Ever been dumped? In 1897, Joseph Conrad wrote “The Return”, a short story about Alvan Hervey and his reaction and subsequent transformation once he realises his wife has left him. The following list of words describes Alvan’s thoughts through the story. The list is presented in chronological order. Like many short stories, there is the inevitable twist at the end.  Conrad once remarked about the story: “I hate it”. Although English was not his first language, Conrad managed to capture in a few words the immensity of rejection.

 annoyed, offensive, insecurity, absurd, bizarre, stunned, meaningless, violent, distracting, tumult, trembled, venomous, filthy, anxious, sooty, dismay, harsh, cruel, threatening, flushed, solitude, silence, strange, appalling, humiliation, pain, heart-broken, suffering, sick, nauseous, intolerable, madhouse, raging, undeserved, abasement, horrid, exposure, annihilated, calumny, wasted, failure, solemn, died, envy, bereavement, misfortune, defaced, mad, shock, startling, distracted, discouraged, despair, monster, fool, severe, anguish, rolling, beating, disgusted, loathsome, unknown, withering, poisonous, deteriorating, horror, crashing, fierce, shaking, destructive, fear, unpardonable, secret, infamy, curse, hide, deny, shameless, forlorn, tramples, tears, strips, unclean, alone, bare, condemnation, rejection, desperation, hiding, disarmed, cornered, dismal, shame, depravity, mistrust, anger, sadness, darkening, scorched, barren, assault, melancholy, rending, forgotten, insidious, penetrating, concealed, chained, loss, bitter, solitude, robbed, exiled, naked, brutally, crash, dumb, dismay, blind, heartless, oppressive, crushing, desolation, lamentable, sorrow, deteriorating, raged, mournful, irritated, depressed, exasperated, indifferent, callous, regret, dust, contamination, tainted, dormant, ghastly, duplicity, lust, murder, abomination, frightful, anguish, folly, grim, despairing, agitation, calamity, sluggish, languidly, convulsed, pitiless, obliterating, destructive, corrupted, acrid, invisible, chilly, haunted, crude, abyss, deadened, contempt, droll, disenchanted, indignant, dull, fatigue, inconceivable, obscure, rancorous, indignation, tampered, impure, disturbing, cynical, corroding, furiously, disappointed, deception, treason, anxiety, frightful, vile, mistake, suspect, annihilation, intolerable, extinction, dishonouring, terrifying, desperate, vague, insane, abase, perplexities, brutality, spite, loneliness, illimitable, unfathomable, suspicious, hate.

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Tromelin and L’Utile

Tromelin is a small uninhabited island located 350 km off the east coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. In 1761 the French cargo ship L’Utile (French word for Useful) was wrecked on the coral reefs surrounding this small island, the ship was enroute from Madagascar to Mauritius. The Captain of L’Utile, La Fargue, had 150 slaves from Madagascar onboard. He had brought the slaves on the ship against the orders of the Governor of Ile de France, Desforges-Boucher. At that time Mauritius was a French colony under the name Ile de France. The Captain of L’Utile along with 20 crew and 70 slaves died in the shipwreck, the slaves were entombed behind nailed down hatches. The survivors built an oven and dug a 15 ft well, from which they obtained brackish sea water filtered through sand. Another 20 more slaves died mainly because the crew hoarded the little water that was available.

 Two months after the wreck, 122 remaining French Sailors left the small island in a makeshift vessel made from wood salvaged from the Utile. The remaining 60 slaves were given a small amount of food from the supplies of the Utile and they were promised that they would be rescued. The French sailors made it back to Madagascar and then continued to Mauritius. The Governor of Mauritius was furious at La Fargue for both the shipwreck and for disobeying orders not to bring slaves, although La Fargue was dead. As ‘punishment’ to the Captain and the crew of L’Utile, the Governor refused to send another ship to rescue the abandoned slaves, according to the Governor, the slaves should never have been onboard in the first place, the slaves were considered expendable and not worth the expense of a rescue expedition. The reason behind the Governor’s ban on the import of slaves was that England and France were engaged in the Seven Years War (1756-1763), the French Governor was expecting a British attack from India and the slaves would be extra mouths to feed during a long siege.

 Back on Tromelin, the 60 desperate slaves survived on giant sea turtles, shore birds, and shellfish. They managed to construct shelter made from coral blocks. After two years they built a raft and 18 of them tried to sail back to Madagascar, no one knows if they made it. In 1773 a new Governor, Louis d’Arsac sent a ship to Tromelin, two sailors from that ship were dispatched in a small canoe and tried to reach the island, the canoe was smashed, one sailor made it back to the ship, the other was left and abandoned on Tromelin. This French sailor, along with four men and three women built a second raft and tried to sail away. Again, it is not known if they made it, probably not, since the French sailor would have notified someone. Another two expeditions to Tromelin failed and finally in 1776, the French Ship, La Dauphine arrived safely, the Captain was Chevalier de Tromelin, today the island bears his name.

 After 15 years, the original 60 slaves had been reduced to 7 women and one 8 month old boy, they were taken back to Mauritius. The Governor, Antoine de Guiran named the baby boy Moses, since he was born ‘on water’. The Governor also granted the 8 survivors immediate freedom, since they had endured enough hardship. Slavery would continue in Mauritius for another 59 years. Slavery was abolished February 1st 1835 (celebrated annually as a National Holiday). Today, the descendents of the Utile shipwreck survivors live in Mauritius and around the world.

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