sexual violence

As the debate over naming and shaming sexual harassers continues, ‘Disgrace’ is the book to read

A university professor assaults a student sexually. It reveals the most in the voices it chooses to silence.

“For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he had, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.”

The opening line of Disgrace, a novel by South African writer JM Coetzee sets the tone of the book right away. Published in 1999, the novel set in post-apartheid South Africa, is about David Lurie, a professor of Romantic poetry at The Technical University of Cape Town who falls from grace after having an “impulsive affair” with one of his students. The book won Coetzee the Man Booker Prize and The Guardian included it in its list of the 100 best novels written in English.

Told entirely from the point of view of Lurie, albeit in the third person, the novel focuses on the 52-year-old man, with the motivations and inner workings of the other characters only divined through the disgraced professor.

Lurie is a serial sexual predator, following a well-worn script when he decides to pursue (yet another) one of his students, twenty-year-old Melanie Issacs. He stalks her, quotes Wordsworth and Byron to her – always the intellectually superior professor rationalising through literature, and when she is doubtful or resistant, reassures her with a shot of whisky or soothing words. “I won’t let it go too far,” he promises her.

After he lures her into a first sexual encounter that she remains “passive throughout” and leaves immediately after, he shows up unannounced at her house and forces himself on her, despite her clear verbal and non-verbal indicators to stop. “A mistake, a huge mistake. Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nonetheless,’ he reflects once he has left her house. Yet he is taken aback when Melanie stops showing up to class, eventually drops out of his course altogether and finally lodges a sexual harassment complaint with the university, not having pegged her as the sort who “takes things to heart”.

“Due process” kicks into motion shortly after. Lurie is produced before a committee that tries to recommend the minimum sentence – a leave of absence and the chance to keep his job. “We would like to help you, David, to find a way out of what must be a nightmare,” implores one of the committee members.

No happy ending

All Lurie has to do is publicly apologise. In a fit of self-righteous pride the professor admits his guilt but refuses to repent stating that those moments with Melanie were ungovernable, that he was a “servant of Eros”. Forced to resign by the university because of his non-cooperation, the denounced Lurie retreats across the country to his daughter Lucy’s small farm to work on a book on Byron. As the out-of-touch ex-professor tries to come to terms with the changing race dynamic of a post-apartheid South African countryside, father and daughter settle into an amiable lull, occupied by the mundane tasks of farm life.

If Melanie’s assault is the springboard for Lurie’s journey, it takes another horrific rape to move it forward. In a brutal attack, three black men break into the house, injure and lock up Lurie in the bathroom and rape Lucy in her bedroom. When she chooses not to report it to the police, he is shocked, appalled that she would not seek justice for such a violation. As their relationship slowly disintegrates in the aftermath of the attack, an enraged but helpless Lurie eventually return to Cape Town to offer a half-hearted apology to Melanie’s father. “Perhaps the trial was a trial for her too, perhaps she too has suffered, and come through,” he decides.

The juxtaposition between the two crimes is evident. Assaulted by strangers, by savage “others” no less, the attack on Lucy fits into the conventional idea of “actual rape”, yet nobody calls the violence inflicted on Melanie that. They attempt instead to deal with the matter quietly and discreetly. Even Lurie’s ex-wife, while chastising him for the “affair”, blames both professor and student, pointing out that Melanie was of legal age.

This is where the book truly strikes home, although it may not have been quite Coetzee’s intention. Lurie’s hypocrisy is our own – outraged at gruesome gang rapes on the streets but “shocked” when women around us say #MeToo, complicit in the power structures and silence around daily harassment in homes, workplaces and yes, universities. “It’s always complicated, this harassment business,” says one of Lurie’s colleagues. Except the complications only seem arise when somebody we know is accused – a co-worker, a friend, a mentor.

But where’s the other side?

Disgrace is a novel of undeniably masterful writing by JM Coetzee, who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature four years after the book was published. It is layered, lyrical and plays skilfully with narrative, written entirely in an unrelenting present tense. The result is a novel that is meant to be disturbing and conflicted, one that packs in questions of race, violence and redemption in a mere 220 pages. “Everyone, Coetzee seems to be saying, is a victim,” said The Guardian in a review.

But that really isn’t true is it? For all its skill, Disgrace is starkly and noticeably a novel about a white South African man written by another white South African man. Apart from contributing to the trope of black men as savage and violent (Coetzee was criticised in his home country for propagating the idea behind apartheid: that once the “savages” came to power, they would loot, pillage and rape), what the writer chooses to amplify is as telling as what he doesn’t.

The rape of his daughter makes Lurie reflect on his own life and serves mostly as a “punishment” for him. While Lucy retreats into a hazy combination of depression and stoic determination to put it behind her, Lurie walks around helpless and shattered, trying to come to terms with the horror of it all. Coetzee does not enter ground breaking territory here – sexual violence against women has been used to further the plot lines of stories from the Mahabharata to Game of Thrones, serving primarily to develop the character of the “affected” men further.

In a story that persistently uses rape to drive narrative, we hear next to nothing from the survivors. The little we hear of Lucy’s voice is through a wall of silence towards her father who “wouldn’t understand” what it’s like since he’s a man. It’s a plausible premise that nevertheless does nothing to amplify her story. Melanie, who has been violated to “a lesser degree”, does not even get that much.

What we get instead is a nuanced tale of a perpetrator. Does the book paint Lurie in a sympathetic light? Definitely not. Throughout the book, he reveals the casual racism and misogyny that marks him. He views his homosexual daughter as “lost to the world of men” while idly dismissing her “lumpy” body. His apology for the abuse of his power as a professor is directed to the father of his ex-student, even as he attempts to once again stalk his victim. He is not meant to be liked – an unreliable narrator and unworthy protagonist that can give fiction such power in storytelling. But he gets the dignity of having his voice heard, his thoughts examined and at certain points in the story, a stab at rehabilitating his image.

Anatomy of a predator

The depravity of Lurie’s character is deliberately disguised in a way that, for example, Nabokov did not afford to Humbert Humbert in Lolita. He is granted the self-reflexivity to berate himself just enough without effecting any real change in himself, and in his “helplessness” he is given the occasion to be pitied.

Yes, predators aren’t always one-dimensional monsters and Coetzee could be forgiven for fleshing out his protagonist, but he is part of a tedious tradition of stories of powerful old men coming to terms with a new world – men who transcend fiction, men of words and art who we are expected to look at indulgently as they struggle to grasp a changing world. They don’t know better but they try, they lacerate themselves, they explain how they came of age in a different time.

As the debate around the name and shame campaign continues, questions are being raised about accountability, anonymity and the potential for misuse. With splits among feminist circles over “due process” and the politics of third party accusations, it is important to assess legal mechanisms and redressal structures critically. But what is greater in its immediacy and the bare minimum at the moment is the recognition that all is far from well in our universities, even the most “liberal” ones.

There is no need to look to fiction to realise that the narrative has always been in the hands of powerful men. We stand at a moment when people are challenging the status quo and attempting to reclaim power. Complicated as the process may be, the worst we can do is to attempt to silence those voices. At least Coetzee did so from behind the veil of fiction – we have no such luxury in real life. And nothing would be more disgraceful.

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