I write today out of ignorance, but would rather do that than let the moment pass. Without advance planning I ended up reading the above entitled novels, the first by Salman Rushdie, the second by Paul Coetzee. They are the only works I’ve read by these two celebrated writers–thus my confession of ignorance–and figured it was about time. Disgrace I picked up at the library because it was a Booker winner (1999), Shame because it was there. Unlikely holiday reading, I’d agree, but I am glad I read them in tandem because you cannot imagine two more different treatments of similar themes.
Shame is fantastic–not in the pop sense of high quality, but in the literal sense of worlds beyond reality. The book is filled with strange beasts and diseases. It travels through vast realms of soul, spirit, government, psychology, medicine, history, politics, religion, philosophy. It takes place in a country that is “not quite Pakistan,” and in a time that ranges from prehistory to the present. I am quite sure that those versed in Indian/Afghan/Iranian history find reams of allegory in the recounting of revolutions and coups and generals and presidents. Once again, I write from ignorance so can be of no help in limning these elements. However, they are gripping enough just on literary terms to justify the read–if you’re open enough to the fantastic. Why the title? Because the people of this country which is not Pakistan is full of notions of honor, and violations of honor bring shame, which brings consequences both for individuals and societies. Rushdie breaks many conventions of modern fiction, one of which is that of the unobtrusive author. This writer is right there all the time directing the reader at every turn, explaining what he’s doing and why–shamelessly, as it were–pulling us back from the fifteenth century to twentieth century London where a father slit his sixteen-year-old-daughter’s throat because she had shamed the family with her (reputed) sexual exploits. When such acts and attitudes reach the national or international level, you get what we now have. And this book was written in 1983.
Disgrace is a work of much smaller scope, but no less impact. The focus is on a literature professor fired for his affair with a twenty-year-old student. The professor is an unlikable sort, given to self-justification of the most fatuous kind, uncaring about others’ opinions to the point of ugly insensitivity. Societally he is in disgrace, but he doesn’t feel either disgraced or persecuted. He’ll explain himself, but never engage in spin or justification, allowing his actions to speak for themselves.
Searching for direction now that his career is gone, Professor Lurie visits his daughter, Lucie, who is living on a small farm some distance from his residence in Cape Town. The novel, through Lurie, plays itself out in the contrasts between urban and rural, black and white society/history, intellectual/artistic and agricultural, western and African mores. In the course of the interaction among all these, we are led not only to understand his disgrace, but the disgrace of all of South African white society–and the degradation that has come equally to black and white society because of it. There’s also a hint of where the path of redemption might lie. Coetzee, though, unlike Rushdie, makes no attempt to explicitly outline any of this. It’s all implied through the look at part the life of the (flawed and often unattractive) protagonist. I do believe that Lurie needed to be about ten years older (he’s only fifty-two) to make some of the description of him work, but maybe they age differently in South Africa.
And a final word. There’s a lot to compare between McEwen and Coetzee. This is a novel which follows the thoughts and emotions of its main character in meticulous detail. However, unlike McEwen, who sometimes lets the joys of wandering around in someone’s noggin divert from the book’s central action, Disgrace is taut with suspense and excitement throughout.