English is an unfit medium for the truth of South Africa • Disgrace, J M Coetzee - Contemporary Literature • 1970–Present

The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained - James Canton 2016

English is an unfit medium for the truth of South Africa • Disgrace, J M Coetzee
Contemporary Literature • 1970–Present




South African literature


1883 Olive Schreiner explores patriarchal and gender issues against a colonial backdrop in The Story of an African Farm.

1948 The bestselling Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton exposes South Africa’s politics of oppression to the world.

1963—90 Thousands of books are banned as “undesirable” in South Africa.

1991 Writer and activist Nadine Gordimer is awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.


2000 Writer NoZakes Mda experiments with a complex mix of Xhosa history, myth, and colonial conflict in his novel The Heart of Redness.

2003 Damon Galgut’s The Good Doctor picks apart the promise of political change.

An extraordinary canon of literature has evolved in South Africa from a society in which the black majority was oppressed for decades by colonialism and apartheid — a tyrannical system of segregation. Writing during and after apartheid falls very broadly into two camps: authors such as Nobel prizewinner Nadine Gordimer produced complex novels that are a testimony to history, rooted in social realism and the politics of their era. In comparison, J M Coetzee appears almost socially irresponsible in producing texts that “rival history”. His stories are characterized by ambiguity and elusiveness, with a Postmodern preoccupation with the language of their production and the authority of the speaking voice.

Power relations

Coetzee’s novel Disgrace centres on the downfall of David Lurie, a professor in classics and modern languages who is reduced to teaching “communications”. A cipher for the lost certainties of whites from old European stock in the new South Africa, Lurie finds that communication fails him. He cannot engage his students, nor use poetry to seduce Melanie, a student whom he effectively rapes during an affair.

After Lurie is plunged into disgrace and dismissed from his job, the story shifts to the Eastern Cape, where his daughter Lucy runs a smallholding. Lurie sees glimpses of an idealized rural past, but struggles with the changing order between white landowners and their black employees and neighbours. He fills his time helping to dispatch neglected animals in a rural veterinary clinic.

The professor speaks several European languages, but cannot engage with Lucy’s neighbour Petrus. “Pressed into the mould of English, Petrus’s story would come out arthritic, bygone.” He has no African words to reason with the three black youths who attack the farm and rape his daughter, nor can he unveil her neighbour’s complicity. Later, at a celebration of Petrus’s new status as landlord, a guest takes centre stage to narrate in the Xhosa language a future that only the blacks can understand.

"Repentance belongs to another world, to another universe of discourse."


An uncertain future

Disgrace, published five years after the first free elections in South Africa, sits in stark contrast to post-apartheid “honeymoon” literature, suffused with the optimism of the new nation. Condemned by some for its violent storyline, the novel is finely balanced in its portrayal of a state of disgrace that has no cultural boundaries. In the end, there is a parity between the attack on Lucy and the professor’s sexual abuse of black prostitutes and the student Melanie, who is assumed to be of mixed race. While Lurie refuses to speak at his hearing from arrogance, Lucy’s silence about her ordeal suggests a realization that life has to be stripped back to the basics because there are no words available to repair or heal.




Novelist, linguist, essayist, and translator John Michael Coetzee was born in 1940 to English-speaking Afrikaner parents. Coetzee spent his early life in Cape Town and Worcester in the Western Cape. After graduating in the 1960s, he worked as a computer programmer in London. He has a PhD in English, Linguistics, and Germanic languages from the University of Texas.

From 1972 Coetzee held posts at the University of Cape Town, finishing in 2000 as Distinguished Professor of Literature, and taught frequently in the USA. He has won a raft of literary awards, including the Booker Prize (twice) and the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature. Coetzee now lives in South Australia and is an advocate for animal rights.

Other key works

1977 In the Heart of the Country

1980 Waiting for the Barbarians

1983 Life & Times of Michael K

1986 Foe

1990 Age of Iron

See also: The Story of an African FarmCry, the Beloved CountryA Dry White Season