Disgrace is a novel by JM Coetzee and Trackers is the latest novel by Deon Meyer. I listened to the audio version of Disgrace while I was over the same period reading Trackers. Which is one reason why I have decided to write about both in the same post. The other and main reason is that both authors are South African and both novels are set in that country. What also links them is that both are set in post apartheid South Africa. Two very different novels though.
Disgrace was written published in 1999 and won the Booker prize for that year. The novel has since, in 2008, been turned into a film starring John Malkovich. The background to the novel is the early years of post apartheid South Africa. Coetzee paints a very bleak and bitter picture of this period, with no great hope for the future either. The Disgrace of the title primarily refers to the fall from grace and a secure livelihood of a professor of English at a Cape Town University. Though it can just as plausibly be read as a metaphor for South Africa. Though the starting point for the novel is David Lurie’s little misdemeanour the main focus of the story is about how to survive in disgrace. David’s disgrace stems from a brief affair with one of his female students. Unwilling to apologise profusely enough he loses his job and status in Cape Town. To get away from it all he decides to visit his only daughter, Lucy, who owns a small farm in the Eastern Cape.
The bulk of the novel is set here in rural South Africa, where the greatest changes have taken place. Nearly all of Lucy’s neighbours are black South Africans and they, or at least some of them are richer and more powerful than Lucy. In particular Petrus, her nearest neighbour. As a single white woman she has to adapt in order to survive. Which she is willing to do, whatever the cost. And in Coetzee’s world the cost is painfully high. While her father is there, the farm is attacked by some black people and Lucy is raped and later discovers she is pregnant. The suspects turn out to be locals and possibly related to Petrus and his extended family. While Lucy wants to go ahead with the pregnancy, David is enraged by the whole thing and is desperate to do something, probably violent to achieve revenge if not justice for his daughter. The novel in essence is David’s slow and tortuous journey towards his own acceptance of what it takes to survive in the new South Africa. Though rather bleak at times, this is a powerful novel about what it means to be human and survive in a changed world.
Trackers offers a completely different view of post apartheid South Africa. For a start the novel falls into the crime/thriller genre. Thus it does not try to reflect on the human condition as such. What it does do is to present South Africa as a pretty vibrant multi racial and multi lingual country. It is interesting that Trackers was published in 2010, more than 10 years after Disgrace. Perhaps the reality of the new and still changing South Africa had become much more of a given for writers such as Deon Meyer. For his novels tend not to dwell too much on past grievances, but rather focus on the new tensions in the country.
Trackers is a very good example of this. Like Disgrace most of the action takes place in and around Cape Town. Here the novel is a tale of three apparently unrelated stories. Each is told primarily from the point of view of one character. The first is based around the discovery by one of the secret services of a possible terrorist plot by a Muslim group. This is obviously a serious matter, though it is clear from the beginning that the various secret service teams are more interested in securing their own future than anything else. The second tale is about the smuggling of two rhinos and some diamonds from Zimbabwe to Cape Town. The final tale concerns the search for a missing person. All are pretty complex tales on their own. How they all relate makes for a fascinating read. Meyer also has the knack of creating some wonderful characters who you really want to know more about. Though there is a fair amount of murder, mayhem and all round violence this is not really a gory tale. Meyer never takes himself too seriously and Trackers has a gently subversive and humorous quality to it.
Two very contrasting pictures of modern South Africa. Strange in a way to note that both writers come from Afrikaner families. Coetzee, born in 1940, is a generation older than Meyer and was brought up speaking and writing in English. He left South Africa in 2001 to live in Australia and is now an Australian citizen. Deon Meyer writes in Afrikaans and still lives in Cape Town.