Disgrace – J. M. Coetzee


(I guess it would be appropriate to start this with a trigger warning for rape.)

Disgrace was our February read in the bookcircle, which is probably just as well because I don’t think I’d ever have read it (and certainly not finished it) of my own accord.

David Lurie is an ageing professor at a university in Cape Town, teaching Communications since his orginial subject – literature – has been deemed too old-fashioned and the department shut down. He falls in lust with one of his students and has an affair of sorts with her, but is subsequently accused of harassment (rightly so, I should say). He refuses to apologise and therefore loses his job. To get away from it all he goes to visit his daughter Lucy, who lives «the simple life» in the Eastern Cape. She has help on the farm from Petrus, who is also developing the land next-door. David and his daughter do not have an easy relationship, it is clear that while he loves her, he does not approve of the way she choses to live her life. He does, however, get involved in her daily routine. That routine is broken when a gang of three attack the farm, stealing anything of value, setting fire to David and – David believes and we with him – gang-raping Lucy. After the attack, the differences between father and daughter increase, he wants her to get out of there while she wants to stay.

To start with I was pleasantly surprised. I liked David more than I had expected to, and although I did not approve of his relationship to Melanie (parts of which were dangerously close to rape), I rather liked his refusal to «issue an apology» – regardless of whether he meant it or not – in order to save the university’s face and keep his position. Most of all I liked his way with words, and up until half-way through the novel I have marked several quoteworthy passages.

His temperament is not going to change, he is too old for that. His temperament is fixed, set. The skull, followed by the temperament: the two hardest parts of the body.

After that, though… At some point «liking» David becomes impossible. As far as trying to understand his daughter, well, he says he’s trying, but he is not, really. However, I don’t really like Lucy, either. I found her somewhat, well «boring» is not quite the correct word, but certainly not terribly interesting. All honour to her for chosing the simple life and being happy with it, but for one I felt her resignation to Petrus’ encroachment had started long before the attack, and I also to a large extent disapprove of her handling of the attack just as much as her father does (though with an understanding that it would not have been my business to approve or disapprove, had this been real life, which he lacks).

And I do need someone to root for when I read, and there really isn’t anyone once I lose all respect for David. Which is one problem.

The other problem is that I really don’t understand what Coetzee wants with this book. What is he trying to say? I do realise this may say as much about me as about Disgrace, but still, it’s my blog, so I will say it: The whole thing seems somewhat pointless to me. And it leaves a sour taste, too, as I feel that Lucy – much as I fail to really like her I do not wish her harm – is sacrificed in order to make a point about David’s relationship to his daughter specifically and humanity in general. The attack is used to turn the spotlight on David’s feelings and actions, rather than as the highligth of a plotline in itself. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t approve of rape as a literary device, especially one that just showcases the emotional angst of middle-aged white males.

Still, there is meat here, and I can sort of see why the novel is so celebrated. For me, though, it’s a thumbs down.

Minaret – Leila Aboulela

aboulela_minaret I finished Minaret towards the end of November, but have had a hard time finding something sensible to say about it.

I initially found the story fascinating, and at some point I felt I could understand how Najwa ended up going from ‘secular’ to ‘religious’. She never really belongs anywhere and once she ends up quite alone in London, it’s easy to understand how the mosque can feel welcoming in that it provides a sense of belonging and a sort of family. The novel also provides an interesting insight into islamic life in a western society from the inside.

However, Najwa is drawn to religion not just for the sense of belonging it provides, but also seems to find ‘religiosity’ (for lack of a better word), saintliness and religious devotion and submission attractive in itself. This is obviously not a unique trait, naturally I don’t think the entirety of the world’s population defining themselves as religious are just ‘in it for the community’. However, it’s an attraction I find it hard to understand, and this novel did not help me understand it any better (in fact, if anything, it left me more baffled).

Where everything that happens to Najwa underpins her need for a community, nothing – as far as I can see – explains this need for submission to a deity, to the contrary, several parts of her story would rather have me reject the idea that a god worth worshiping would sanction such things.

So, on the whole: Worth reading, but not entirely satisfactory.

Smakebit på søndag: Aké

soyinkaI finished Minaret yesterday, and only barely started Aké by Wole Soyinka today, so I haven’t found any very illuminating quotes yet. However, here is a taster in the form of a line from the first page which made me smile:

BishopsCourt was also a storey-building but only pupils lived in it, so it was not a house.

More tasters to be found at Flukten fra virkeligheten.

The Worst Date Ever – Jane Bussmann


We meet Jane Bussmann in Hollywood where, having failed at making it as a comedy writer, she is making a living interviewing – or making up interviews with – celebrities. Not feeling like this was, perhaps, just where her career ought to have taken her, she sets out to do something more meaningful in the best way she can, by finding a celebrity that’s doing something worthwhile. That he is also drop-dead gorgeus does not strike her as a drawback, hence the title. Through a series of events Bussmann finds herself in Uganda, without her interviewee, and starts doing her own research while waiting for him to show up. What she finds is that the drawn out conflict between the government of Uganda, headed by Museveni – regarded by «the west» as one of the Good Guys – and the rebel Kony, leading an army consisting mostly of kidnapped children, was not being carried out in such a straightforward manner as one might think, and that who was actually on which side seemed less clear the more people you talked to.

Now, finding that a conflict in an African country is not straight forward, finding that a conflict anywhere at all is not straight forward, is hardly surprising. However, Bussmann manages to narrate her investigation in such a way that you do feel personally involved, which is a good thing.

And along the way she does manage to convey the insanity of conflicts such as these and some of the plain idiocy you can be met with from those who are supposed to know better. Of the latter, here is an example:

Rebecca had had her retirement plans shelved by AIDS. I could be wrong, but I’d read that the man George Bush put in charge of foreign aid had the chance to make AIDS drugs affordable in Africa. However, the unfortunately named Andrew Natsios said it would have been irresponsible, because these drugs need to be taken at the same time every day. He really did mean Africans couldn’t tell the time.

All in all, though, it left me feeling a little… deflated? Not that I expected Bussmann to somehow, singlehandedly, solve all the political problems in Africa. That, I guess, would be an unfair expectation. However I guess I did expect… something. Something more than the book provides, anyway. Because whereas, to all intents and purposes, The Other Hand – a book still fresh in my memory – ends in disaster, it still manages to be life-affirming, and The Worst Date Ever ends on a bit of a «Meh».