The perks of being Maimoona Rahman
224 pages | Penguin Books (August 27, 2008) | $10.20 (Amazon)
This book is bloody brilliant.
If you live in Qatar, order it on Amazon/ebay now.
If you don’t live in Qatar, then you have no excuse for not hopping in a taxi/some public transport/your car, going to the nearest bookshop, and grabbing a copy right now.
This book should be on that little stainless steel bookmark that has an engraved list of 50 books people must read before they die.
The first book I ever read by J. M. Coetzee was Foe. Excellent, excellent retelling of Robinson Crusoe, and holy moly, there’s a woman in the book. Soon after I finished reading Foe, Ahdaf Soueif, the author of Map of Love, was invited to Qatar University to talk about her latest book. Map of Love was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999, and curious to find out which book it lost to, I stumbled upon Disgrace by Coetzee. I had already known of the author from reading Foe, and the blurbs on Disgrace I came across online had me in shivers. I searched high and low, but quality book shopping in Qatar is a bummer. I was contemplating ordering a copy on Amazon when I spotted a copy of the book in my professor’s office. That was the most exciting moment I ever experienced in Qatar University, followed by the moment when my professor let me borrow the book.
Here’s the précis: Professor David Lurie, an adjunct communications professor, is asked to resign following charges of sexual involvement with a student from one of his classes. Professor Lurie temporarily moves in with his daughter on a farm in the Eastern Cape. A harrowing tragedy on the farm drives home that a father-daughter relationship is punctured with gender differences, with politics of the society, with history of the country, with academics and logic, with pity and sneer.
Each and every character in this novel, regardless of how minor they are, has layers. You want to dislike them for their one-million-and-one faults, but you can’t because they are so incredibly relatable. Professor Lurie is in his fifties, but he is an impossible Casanova, judging women by how they look, hating them for not taking the effort to look good. He worships Byron and Eros, and believes his sexual impulses are out of control. But Lurie is a nice man: he respects people’s religious opinions and he doesn’t grumble about how unfair life is. His daughter, Lucy, is a hippie. She doesn’t care much about academics and reads The Mystery of Edwin Drood; for her it’s about farming and taking care of animals and setting up a stall in the farmers’ market on Sundays. She is sort of like the missionary who forgives crimes to right the wrongs of her ancestors or to try to understand that people’s crimes are justifiable. Bev Shaw, an animal lover, is responsible for putting unwanted animals to sleep, relieving them of their pain or their solitude. She seems incredibly compatible with her husband, and they perhaps even have a loving relationship, but you know she’s human too when she hesitates yet gives in to an opportunity to cheat on her husband. Katy, an abandoned bulldog, seems full of character. She is slow, lazy, and probably depressed, but she hits it off with Professor Lurie, as though they share some private shame. Petrus is the macho dogman and a flourishing farmer. Professor Lurie thinks Petrus is the kind of man who thinks he can trade women like real estate. But, you can’t completely hate Petrus because his actions are perhaps his response to apartheid, although in the book, he doesn’t really commit a crime. He is not all that bad, but then when he is good, it is probably for selfish reasons. Or so Professor Lurie would want you to believe.
The narrator never explicitly mentions race in this book, but the book is fraught with racial overtones: “us” vs “them”, African vs Western. Coetzee doesn’t mention black or white; he only mentions African and Western once at the end of the book. He doesn’t mention “native” or “settlers.” Because this book is so much about racial divide, it is surprising that allusions to ethnicity are so subtle compared to most other books I have read on race. For instance, Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness spare no opportunity to describe the anatomy of the Africans, as though Africans need to be described to show the differences between them and the Whites. The racial divide in Disgrace reflects apartheid, which officially ended only a few years before the book was written, but the narrator never mentions the term. Lucy feels like she owes some sort of compensation to the natives for what happened during apartheid and before. When she is raped, she deems the incident to be a rent she had to pay for thriving on someone else’s land.
This book raises important questions about lust and masculinity as well. Are either acceptable? What do they mean for women? Can men ever understand the repercussions of either on women? Professor Lurie seems to think he understands how his daughter must feel as a rape victim, but he also realises that he doesn’t, because he is not a woman. Being a lustful man himself, it is even harder to imagine himself on the receiving end of loveless sex. Is this how his inamoratas feel? Raped?
Disgrace is poetic, yet not slow, overly dramatized, or romantic. Interspersed with Byron and the life of Byron, this book sort of made me feel that life is a poem, but a tragic one. Coetzee has this way of weaving an intricate story with ordinary characters. The intricacies present themselves not in the plot or the events, but in the narration. The narration, using phrases from the book, is “music whose harmonies, lushly autumnal yet edged with irony” the reader “hears shadowed in his inner ear.”
This novel is so complex that I am afraid I am not the person to review it. I am happy I read this masterpiece, the quality of which I aspire to reach, but I am afraid it will haunt me for a long, long time.