An unreliable narrator explores the politics of public shame and private humiliation in J.M. Coetzee's 1999 novel DISGRACE. On the macro level, the book is an exploration of post apartheid in South Africa. On a micro level, the book explores the ramifications of David Lurie's "disgrace" after being fired from a local college for sexually harassing one of his students. Was Professor Lurie motivated by a strong libido or the desire to assert his power in the newly changed landscape of South Africa? This ambiguity is at the center of Coetzee's novel, which unabashedly portrays the connection between personal experience and the political realm. According to Carol Hanisch who coined the phrase "The Personal is Political" in her 1969 ground breaking essay of the same name, personal issues are always political. David Lurie loses his job, refuses to defend himself in any way and takes refuge on his grown daughter's farm. Life on the farm seems simple. His daughter grows vegetables, which she sells on the weekends at a farmer's market. She also operates a small dog kennel. David falls into the ease of country life, only to have the crime he has fled from visited upon his daughter. Lucy is raped, the dogs on the property are shot, and David is literally set on fire when the intruders pour gasoline on his head. Is this divine retribution or just the effects of a lawless land? David's disfigured ear seems the symbolic punishment for his refusal to show simple empathy and compassion for those around him.
Coetzee invites us to explore the moral and social issues within the context of his novel. He also invites us to explore the broader existential issues which exist outside the novel. Is life bleak or is redemption possible? Is isolation a natural state or a willed decision to make life tolerable? These are just a few of the questions which Disgrace poses and asks us to meditate upon. A book rich in plot, meaning and voice, Disgrace is a novel of ideas and a well-crafted story. As Coetzee says, "When all else fails, philosophize."