In March of 1960, white cops massacred 69 unarmed blacks in Sharpeville, South Africa. In 1961, uMkhonto we Sizwe [Spear of the Nation] was co-founded by Nelson Mandela to fight back against white racist rule. In 1964, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison. In 1976, between 176 and 700 black protesters were killed by white policemen in Soweto. Four thousand were injured.
Teaching in Cape Town after years in the UK and US, J. M. Coetzee published Life and Times of Michael K in 1983. Its epigraph, “War is the father of all and king of all. Some he shows as gods, others as men. Some he makes slaves, and others free.”
Although it’s a novel about war in South Africa, there wasn’t one, then or later, but war was definitely in the air, so Coetzee imagined it in detail. Though Coetzee was wrong in predicting war, his depiction of a society experiencing social breakdown, degradation, paucity and draconian restrictions resonates beyond place and time.
Above all, war is displacement, from all you’ve ever known, for nothing can prepare anyone for extreme violence that doesn’t end. Even if your meaty sack is still intact and banal, indiscriminate blood hasn’t filmed your retinas, you’ve been ejected from normalcy.
To emphasize Michael K’s displacement, Coetzee makes him a harelipped bastard who spent much of his childhood in a group home. Grown, he had no friends, much less women. K scraped by on the lowliest jobs, such as tending to a public bathroom at night, where he’s “oppressed by the brilliant neon light that shone off the white tiles and created a space without shadows.”
Then K got mugged, “On his way home from work late one Friday he was set upon in a subway by two men who beat him, took his watch, his money and his shoes, and left him lying stunned with a slash across his arm, a dislocated thumb and two broken ribs.”
When K admitted his mother to a hospital, we got a better glimpse of a society in crisis, “She had spent five days lying in a corridor among scores of victims of stabbings and beatings and gunshot wounds who kept her awake with their noise, neglected by nurses who had no time to spend cheering up an old woman when there were young men dying spectacular deaths all about.”
Released, K’s mom returned to her tiny room in affluent Sea Point, where she’s a domestic servant. Triggered by a mere traffic accident, an orgy of rioting and looting then broke out:
Parked cars were smashed open and pushed broadside on into the street. Sirens announced the curfew and were ignored. An ambulance that arrived with a motorcycle escort turned about short of the barrier and raced off, chased by a hail of stones. Then from the balcony of a fourth-floor flat a man began to fire revolver shots. Amid screams the crowd dashed for cover, spreading into the beachfront apartment blocks, racing along the corridors, pounding upon doors, breaking windows and lights. The man with the revolver was hauled from his hiding-place, kicked into insensibility, and tossed down to the pavement. Some residents of the flats chose to cower in the dark behind locked doors, others fled into the streets. A woman, trapped at the end of a corridor, had her clothes torn from her body; someone slipped on a fire escape and broke an ankle. Doors were beaten down and flats ransacked. In the flat immediately above Anna K’s room, looters tore down curtains, heaped clothing on the floor, broke furniture, and lit a fire, which, though it did not spread, sent out dense clouds of smoke.
Nothing like that happened in white South Africa, and Sea Point is still elegant and pristine, with the best Chinese food in Cape Town, mostly to serve its large Jewish population.
Coetzee, though, didn’t have to overly strain his imagination, for he lived in the USA from 1965 to 1972, when black riots were common. He saw them on TV, at least. It’s a leap, however, to place such a scene in Sea Point. Even today, it’s overwhelmingly white.
Perhaps his time in the US also made Coetzee circumspect about race, especially if it suggests any foreboding about blacks, especially black revenge. Although there’s a race war here, race is never addressed, and even Michael K’s is unclear.
With his mom a domestic servant, it’s implied K was most likely not white. Nearly halfway through the novel, he’s booked at a police station as “Michael Visagie-CM-40-NFA-Unemployed.” Most readers, though, would miss that CM means colored male.
We get another tiny hint when a particularly nasty police captain is described as a “big blond man.” Railing against a group of vagrants, he accused them of being criminals, saboteurs, idlers and ingrates who, collectively, were behind South Africa’s turmoil, “You’ve asked for war, you get war!”
The you asking for war, then, were not blacks but, vaguely, society’s losers, oppressed or downtrodden. Coetzee is reframing South Africa’s racial problem as a Marxist battle between classes.
Though K was called a monkey by a farmer (a Boer, perhaps, for boer means farmer), two cops were also labeled as such by the angry blond captain.
In the camp for vagrants, an older man told K, “What they would really like—this is my opinion—is for the camp to be miles away in the middle of the Koup out of sight. Then we could come on tiptoe in the middle of the night like fairies and do their work, dig their gardens, wash their pots, and be gone in the morning leaving everything nice and clean.”
Although that describes Apartheid perfectly, that whites only want blacks for their labor, but otherwise to be mute and invisible, it is, again, reframed in Marxist terms, but only vaguely.
For a novel about South Africa, Apartheid, post-Apartheid or just general collapse, Life and Times of Michael K remains, ultimately, too abstract. For something much more grounded, thus more terrifying, we must turn to Disgrace, published 16 years later, when more evidence has been gathered.
In 1990, Mandela was released. In 1993, four blacks used hand grenades and assault weapons to kill 11 whites and coloreds inside Saint James Church in Cape Town. Fifty-eight more were wounded. In 1994, Mandela was elected president, marking the end of white rule. In 1998, the three surviving assailants of the Saint James Church Massacre were given amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Only one, Gcinikhaya Makoma, had been jailed, and only for 5 ½ years.
(In 2002, Makoma was arrested for robbing a cash truck, but the badly prosecuted case was thrown out. In 2007, this enterprising revolutionary was finally sentenced to 46 years for one more murder, also in Cape Town.)
Still in Cape Town, Coetzee published his masterful Disgrace in 1999. Written during the immediate aftermath of Apartheid, it introduces all the key themes, or problems, that still define South Africa.
For me, though, its beginning is not too inviting, for I’m not keen on having a professor as protagonist, especially if his sex life, yuck, yuck, yuck, is described. Sure enough, the lickably lekker coed shows up in chapter 2, right after the tall and slim colored whore in chapter 1!
Coetzee is not subjecting us to David Lurie, professor of literature, lover of Byron and amateur operatist, because he himself was an academic. If it is in any way a self-portrait, then it is a supremely detached and damning one. Though Lurie may be seen as an overly civilized man in a society turned barbaric, it’s not quite that simple.
Lurie admits he hasn’t “much of an eye for anything, except pretty girls,” but that’s alright, for one mustn’t check one’s passion. He quotes Blake, “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.” So well-read, Lurie can always spring some great line to justify anything.
Sometimes, just dropping a name is enough, for he can count on his audience to be culturally at sea, “Follow your temperament. It is not a philosophy, he would not dignify it with that name. It is a rule, like the Rule of St Benedict.”
Saint Benedict actually advises, “Let him keep himself at every moment from sins and vices, whether of the mind, the tongue, the hands, the feet, or the self-will, and check also the desires of the flesh […] We must be on our guard, therefore, against evil desires, for death lies close by the gate of pleasure.”
Ah, but the temperament is fixed and set, Lurie’s convinced. “The skull, followed by the temperament: the two hardest parts of the body.” Unzipping his stiff temperament, Lurie cites a teacher of self-control. Coetzee seeds his text with lots of wicked irony. A seemingly casual word, gesture or concept can also boomerang much later to whack or torch you.
When the verb burn first appears, it’s flameless, merely a figure of speech in discussing Wordsworth. Next, we have burning meat, but only at a braai in a farmer’s market. Lurie then remembers his students’ dullness to the perfective, as in burnt, “an action carried through to its conclusion.” Lurie gets his perfective burning conclusion alright, when he’s burnt. Just before it happens, Lurie even declares that real actions are needed instead of symbolism.
All that will come. Meanwhile, we’re still with a middle-aged man extending his salad days. Set and hardened, Lurie can’t help but seduce, and rather skillfully, given his experience with the pink chase, a student with “small breasts” and hips “as slim as a twelve-year-old’s.” “A child! he thinks: No more than a child! What am I doing? Yet his heart lurches with desire.”
According to this poetry swooning professor, it is a crime against nature to snuff out desire, and many of us would agree, since it is the most enlightened and au courant stance. “‘My case rests on the rights of desire,’ he says. ‘On the god who makes even the small birds quiver.’” Uninhibited, unchained and unleashed all sound good. Lurie doesn’t rape his student, after all.
She does not resist. All she does is avert herself—avert her lips, avert her eyes. She lets him lay her out on the bed and undress her: she even helps him, raising her arms and then her hips. Little shivers of cold run through her; as soon as she is bare, she slips under the quilted counterpane like a mole burrowing, and turns her back on him.
Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core. As though she had decided to go slack, die within herself for the duration, like a rabbit when the jaws of the fox close on its neck. So that everything done to her might be done, as it were, far away.
It’s their second coupling, after he has shown up at her apartment unannounced, so that she’s “too surprised to resist the intruder,” but since it’s only passion, his, and his only, it’s justified, “Strange love! Yet from the quiver of Aphrodite, goddess of the foaming waves, no doubt about that.”
Though Lurie wants it to be no more than “a quick little affair—quickly in, quickly out,” it rapidly spins out of control, with the girl’s boyfriend, parents then, finally, the university all involved. Unwilling to be contrite, Lurie simply pleads guilty as charged, so is dismissed.
What does Lurie’s plight have to do with post-Apartheid South Africa? Plenty. We’ll get to it.
Fleeing his disgrace, Lurie takes refuge at his daughter’s farm in Salem, a good 542 miles away. City-raised and with even a stint in Holland, Lucy is a novice farmer, living alone. Her lesbian partner has just left.
Since Lurie has just screwed someone younger than Lucy, there’s sometimes a creepiness to their interactions, such as here, “He sits on the bed, idly fondles her bare foot. A good foot, shapely. Good bones, like her mother. A woman in the flower of her years, attractive despite the heaviness, despite the unflattering clothes.”
Lurie squeezes his daughter into a fleeting fantasy about households of three, “Three. That would be a solution of sorts. He and Lucy and Melanie. Or he and Melanie and Soraya.” The last is a married prostitute with two children.
With her dark, liquid eyes, Soraya still haunts him. Lurie has concluded that their intercourse “must be, he imagines, rather like the copulation of snakes: lengthy, absorbed, but rather abstract, rather dry, even at its hottest.” Only her eyes are wet, professor.
Lurie can’t help but rue Lucy’s sexual bent, “Attractive, he is thinking, yet lost to men. Need he reproach himself, or would it have worked out like that anyway? From the day his daughter was born he has felt for her nothing but the most spontaneous, most unstinting love. Impossible she has been unaware of it. Has it been too much, that love? Has she found it a burden? Has it pressed down on her? Has she given it a darker reading?”
Odd, but not so odd, to think that his pressing down on her with a frantic, insatiable and self-absorbed burden may have steered the woman towards the female.
Constantly appraising women, Lurie finds Lucy’s best friend repulsive, “He has not taken to Bev Shaw, a dumpy, bustling little woman with black freckles, close-cropped, wiry hair, and no neck. He does not like women who make no effort to be attractive.”
Lurie also doesn’t think much of her unpaid stewardship of an animal clinic, to which Lucy also volunteers, “That’s wonderful, then. I’m sorry, my child, I just find it hard to whip up an interest in the subject. It’s admirable, what you do, what she does, but to me animal-welfare people are a bit like Christians of a certain kind. Everyone is so cheerful and well-intentioned that after a while you itch to go off and do some raping and pillaging. Or to kick a cat.”
The very next time raping appears in this novel, it’s no longer just a word, casually spat out.
As the white father and daughter walk home with two Dobermanns, they encounter three strange blacks. Reaching their house, they’re surprised to see the same blacks, one of whom is described by Coetzee as tall and “handsome, strikingly handsome, with a high forehead, sculpted cheekbones, wide, flaring nostrils.”
Obeying some obscure logic, the white woman disarms herself by caging her Dobermanns, before asking these blacks what they want. One explains that they must use her phone because of an accident, a bad accident, which, almost immediately, turns into the handsome one’s sister having a baby. Since the blacks are from a village without phone, it makes enough sense for the white woman to let the tall, handsome black man inside.
Over six harrowing pages, we read about these blacks ransacking the house, shooting the dogs, hitting Lurie then setting his head on fire, stealing everything of value, including his car, and, yes, raping Lucy, all three of them, including one described as just a boy. When not learning sexual violence, this apprentice in a flowered shirt eats from a tub of ice cream. Done with their work, these blacks laugh and drive off.
In the middle of the mayhem, Coetzee inserts this reflection, “He speaks Italian, he speaks French, but Italian and French will not save him here in darkest Africa. He is helpless, an Aunt Sally, a figure from a cartoon, a missionary in cassock and topi waiting with clasped hands and upcast eyes while the savages jaw away in their own lingo preparatory to plunging him into their boiling cauldron. Mission work: what has it left behind, that huge enterprise of upliftment? Nothing that he can see.”
With a burnt ear and all his hair burnt off, perfective tense, Lurie also muses:
It happens every day, every hour, every minute, he tells himself, in every quarter of the country. Count yourself lucky to have escaped with your life. Count yourself lucky not to be a prisoner in the car at this moment, speeding away, or at the bottom of a donga with a bullet in your head. Count Lucy lucky too. Above all Lucy.
A risk to own anything: a car, a pair of shoes, a packet of cigarettes. Not enough to go around, not enough cars, shoes, cigarettes. Too many people, too few things. What there is must go into circulation, so that everyone can have a chance to be happy for a day. That is the theory; hold to the theory and to the comforts of theory. Not human evil, just a vast circulatory system, to whose workings pity and terror are irrelevant. That is how one must see life in this country: in its schematic aspect. Otherwise one could go mad. Cars, shoes; women too. There must be some niche in the system for women and what happens to them.
Though this violence is Disgrace’s most startling incident, it’s not its main thrust. Lucy’s response is.
To the police, she only reports being robbed. When the boy rapist turns out to be related to a man, Petrus, she has sold land to and employed, Lucy does nothing.
Petrus’ complicity is also indicated by his convenient disappearance on that terrible night. As her closest neighbor, and also a friend, so she thought, Petrus would certainly be expected to come to Lucy’s rescue.
It gets even weirder. Finding out she’s pregnant from the rape, Lucy decides to keep the baby, and not from any religious conviction. She has told her dad there’s no higher life, “This is the only life there is. Which we share with animals.”
She’s also made peace with the fact that her baby’s father may be the boy rapist. Having moved into Petrus’ house, he’s now her neighbor. When Lurie beats the boy after catching him peeping outside Lucy’s window, she’s not mad at the youthful monster, but her father!
Most astoundingly, Lucy’s willing to give her land to Petrus and even to marry him, just to be unharmed. She tells Lurie:
“Go back to Petrus,” she says. “Propose the following. Say I accept his protection. Say he can put out whatever story he likes about our relationship and I won’t contradict him. If he wants me to be known as his third wife, so be it. As his concubine, ditto. But then the child becomes his too. The child becomes part of his family. As for the land, say I will sign the land over to him as long as the house remains mine. I will become a tenant on his land.”
Although Lurie fights against each of Lucy’s concession or surrender, it’s not his life to decide:
“How humiliating,” he says finally. “Such high hopes, and to end like this.”
“Yes, I agree, it is humiliating. But perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing. Not with nothing but. With nothing. No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity.”
“Like a dog.”
“Yes, like a dog.”
This Boer, then, will accept outrageous conditions just to be allowed to stay on her land, in her South Africa, and since she’s a true Boer, a farmer, she won’t even go to Cape Town, much less Amsterdam.
Her urban and urbane father, too, has moved to the country, but not into her home. Taking a room in nearby Grahamstown, Lurie can visit Lucy regularly, and his grandson, too.
“What will it entail, being a grandfather? As a father he has not been much of a success, despite trying harder than most. As a grandfather he will probably score lower than average too. He lacks the virtues of the old: equanimity, kindliness, patience. But perhaps those virtues will come as other virtues go: the virtue of passion, for instance. He must have a look again at Victor Hugo, poet of grandfatherhood. There may be things to learn.”
Easing up on passion, Lurie still thinks of it as a virtue, but that’s another of Coetzee’s jokes, or jabs, at his protagonist. Another is Lurie’s affair with Bev. Yes, the one he found so repulsive.
After their first congress, dutifully performed on the floor in the animal clinic, our aging playboy reflects, “Let me not forget this day, he tells himself, lying beside her when they are spent. After the sweet young flesh of Melanie Isaacs, this is what I have come to. This is what I will have to get used to, this and even less than this.”
Although Lurie has insisted he was too old to change, he’s been transformed, into one who even cares deeply about the abandoned dogs at Bev’s clinic. After their lame lovemaking has petered out, he’s still her unpaid assistant, a conscientious dog man.
Unchecked passion defines not just Lurie, the horny professor, but also those blacks who rape his daughter, for isn’t revenge the ultimate unchecked passion?
Pressed by a reporter about his affair with the coed, Lurie says he has no regrets, but is rather “enriched by the experience.”
Later, he remembers all those women he has screwed, wives of colleagues, tourists, students, hitchhikers and whores, etc., and again concludes:
Enriched: that was the word the newspapers picked on to jeer at. A stupid word to let slip, under the circumstances, yet now, at this moment, he would stand by it. By Melanie, by the girl in Touws River; by Rosalind, Bev Shaw, Soraya: by each of them he was enriched, and by the others too, even the least of them, even the failures. Like a flower blooming in his breast, his heart floods with thankfulness.
Of course lust is greed, so enriched is apt. It was never about any of the women Lurie claimed to love, but the conquering man. Ditto the black rapists. Passion isn’t just suffering, as in the Passion of Christ, but selfish satisfaction. To be perfect, perfective, it has to be spent.
Lucy to her dad:
“Hatred… When it comes to men and sex, David, nothing surprises me any more. Maybe, for men, hating the woman makes sex more exciting. You are a man, you ought to know. When you have sex with someone strange—when you trap her, hold her down, get her under you, put all your weight on her—isn’t it a bit like killing? Pushing the knife in; exiting afterwards, leaving the body behind covered in blood—doesn’t it feel like murder, like getting away with murder?”
While you may dismiss it as a channeling of Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse, Lucy’s a lesbian who has just been raped by three men. Screwing “someone strange,” the key phrase above, is also a lot like raping, and that’s its liberation, peace and joy.
Lucy also thinks, “They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying? Perhaps that is what they tell themselves.”
Coetzee emigrated to Australia, but the fictional Lurie and Lucy stay on, as do nearly five million other whites, not to mention many coloreds who are practically white. I’ve met a few.
Though many have paid a terrible price for just staying in post-Apartheid South Africa, most have not. Many have thrived, especially here in Cape Town. Responding to my article about dockside prostitutes, as seen through the eyes of writer Henry Trotter and photographer Billy Monk, a Capetonian complains:
Why write about the sordid, what about the beauty of the Cape.
Hey try Camps Bay, I took a niece from England to lunch there and her comment was that I live in paradise.
The violence that does happen here is no different to anywhere else in the world today.
It is also mainly confined to a few dormitory towns of which no visitor would normally go to.
Going often to where most visitors don’t stray, I almost got mugged by three young blacks, but check your schadenfreude, I managed to lose nothing. Had those youths been more professional or passionate, I would have gotten a few nicks, at least.
I’ve also been to paradisal Camps Bay a few times. With sublime Table Mountain a God-given defensive wall, Camps Bay’s million dollar homes glow golden each dusk, as another sun sinks into the Atlantic. Retired couples stroll its beach. Blond children frolic on sidewalks. Babes jog.
White South Africa began right here in 1652. Fanning out, the Boers needed so many slaves, local blacks weren’t enough, so many more slaves were brought in, from Madagascar and even distant Southeast Asia.
When the British took over Cape Town in 1806, it had 16,000 people. Ten thousand were slaves. Most of the free blacks were also treated, more or less, like slaves.
Expanding their dominion over southern Africa, the British abolished slavery, yet Boers continued to kidnap and enslave blacks, whom they rebranded as “apprentices.”
Leaving Europe, Boers fled civilization. Americans did the same. Though weakening, this frontier mentality persists.
On October 18th, 1879, Garnet Wolseley noted in his diary:
A Boer’s idea of life is, that he should pay no taxes of any sort or kind, that he should be amenable to no sort of law he disliked, that there should be no police to keep order, that he should be allowed to kill or punish the Natives as he thought fit, that no progress towards civilization should be attempted, that all foreigners should be kept out of the country & that he should be surrounded by a waste of land many miles of extent each way which he called his farm, in fact that he should have no neighbours as the smoke of another man’s fire was an abomination to him. These Transvaal Boers are the only white race I know of that has steadily been going back towards barbarism. They seem to be influenced by some savage instinct which causes them to fly from civilization… Altogether I regard them as the lowest in the scale of white men & to be also the very most interesting people I have ever known or studied.
This sheds light on Lucy’s insistence on being a farmer. It also explains what she had to endure. Savagery is a passion.