Coetzee’s Disgrace

I’m treating myself to reading a novel on this second day of Christmas. As part of my attempt to read up on all things South African, I picked up a copy of J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace a while ago. I finally started reading it and came across this passage (below) that describes a smallholding in a town in the Eastern Cape very close to where Amy and I lived last year. Although the book was written 20 years ago, it still seems to capture a great deal about the place.

The novel, which I have not yet finished, is quite good so far. It won the Booker Prize so I guess it will continue to be. If you’ve read the novel, please don’t tell me how it turns out. The passage quoted below not only gives one a sense of the place in the Eastern Cape, it is also full of foreboding. Quite a brilliant piece of writing.

The house, which is large, dark, and even at midday, chilly, dates from the time of large families, of guests by the wagonful. Six years ago Lucy moved in as a member of a commune, a tribe of young people who peddled leather goods and sunbaked pottery in Grahamstown and, in between stands of mealies, grew dagga. When the commune broke up, the rump moving on to New Bethesda, Lucy stayed behind on the smallholding with her friend Helen. She had fallen in love with the place, she said; she wanted to farm it properly. He helped her buy it. Now here she is, flowered dress, bare feet and all, in a house full of the smell of baking, no longer a child playing at farming but a solid countrywoman, a boervrou.

“I’m going to put you in Helen’s room,” she says. “It gets the morning sun. You have no idea how cold the mornings have been this winter.”

“How is Helen?” he asks. Helen is a large, sad-looking woman with a deep voice and bad skin, older than Lucy. He has never been able to understand what Lucy sees in her; privately he wishes Lucy would find, or be found by, someone better.

“Helen has been back in Johannesburg since April. I’ve been alone, aside from the help.”

 “You didn’t tell me that. Aren’t you nervous by yourself?”

Lucy shrugs. “There are the dogs. Dogs still mean something. The more dogs, the more deterrence. Anyhow, if there were to be a break-in, I don’t see that two people would be better than one.”

“That’s very philosophical.”

 “Yes. When all else fails, philosophize.”

 “But you have a weapon.”

“I have a rifle. I’ll show you. I bought it from a neighbor. I haven’t ever used it, but I have it.”

“Good. An armed philosopher. I approve.”

Dogs and a gun; bread in the oven and a crop in the earth. Curious that he and her mother, cityfolk, intellectuals, should have produced this throwback, this sturdy young settler. But perhaps it was not they who produced her: perhaps history had the larger share.

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