J M Coetzee is most famous for his Booker prize-winning novel, Life and Times of Michael K (1983). His big theme, in common with Kafka before him, was the uneasy relationship between the individual and society, although his South African K lived a less dismal life than the bewildered Czech K. Coetzee's masterly eighth novel, the Booker-shortlisted Disgrace, alternates domestic and political tensions more obliquely than some of his earlier work, spinning malign tales through half-heard and assumed gossip that haunts a claustrophobic narrative like whispers in the dark.
The creative and destructive energies that ignite Disgrace are all sexual. We first encounter the twice-divorced David, a jaded fiftysomething English teacher at the Technical University of Cape Town, trying to turn a long-term relationship with a prostitute into a more loving liaison; but it sours when he discovers her other domestic life as a wife and mother. This sparingly evoked opening doesn't prepare you for the darkness ahead. Soon after he initiates a relationship with one of his students, and David himself describes their physical encounters as "not rape, not quite that, but undesired to the core". He is reported by her to the vice-rector and discharged because he refuses to apologise for his behaviour. This is his disgrace.
He moves in with his daughter, Lucy, on her farmstead in the remote Eastern Cape, and their relationship is tested by domestic unease and then by deeper political events. Lucy is raped in an attack by three black men that Coetzee twists into a complex metaphor for the future of white individuals and families in the new South Africa. David doesn't actually witness the violation (he is locked in a lavatory) but is tortured by some of the wider social and political consequences: "Like a stain the story is spreading across the district. Not her story to spread but theirs: they are its owners."
David is a misogynist, a monster even, yet Coetzee deftly manipulates our sympathies. The two pivotal scenes - two assaults - make Disgrace an unhappy novel, but its collection of depressed people make it an incessantly grim one, too. Unable to communicate at the best of times, the characters' relationships crumple completely under the strain of momentous events. Coetzee, meanwhile, maintains the miracle that is his style: a determinedly clipped, abrupt prose that defies the brutality of events by nourishing a poetic vision. The main events, and the threads and stories within stories, all emerge in the end as the same central tale: a tireless reiteration of the impossibility of communication. Even attempts at communicating with animals are shown to be a lethal lie, although they provide some of the most emotional scenes in the book (Coetzee published an animal welfare metafiction, The Lives of Animals, earlier this year).
Disgrace is heavily allegorical, but Coetzee never quite resorts to the aesthetic equivalent of the sledgehammer. The rape scene is kept at a distance from us, and so, unlike Lucy's, the pain of the narrative oozes slowly. In the end, the hero of this book with no heroes is the persistence of its adroit style. A clipped storytelling informs us of some horrific rumours about ourselves and about South Africans in particular: that we cannot tell the truth but that we also cannot lie properly; that we cannot own our own story; that our country's history is waiting, always, to catch up with each and every one of us. This novel may be depressing, but it has a hard, haunting truth all the same.