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.