Fiona Snyckers: Lacuna
J.M. Coetzee‘s novel Disgrace was his second novel to win the Booker Prize. To some extent, the novel is about David Lurie, a disgraced university professor. He goes to live with his daughter, Lucy, who lives on a remote farm eking out a living. The key event is when the pair are attacked by three blacks. He is locked up in a toilet which is set on fire (he is not badly hurt) but she is raped. She refuses to reveal who her assailants were and, when she becomes pregnant, she elects to keep the child.
The book has not surprisingly been criticised. Firstly, it has been criticised for portraying the black population as violent. To be fair, South Africa is a violent country. When I visited, I was surprised by the number of houses with high walls and razor wire on top and the number of security vehicles driving around. It has been suggested that the rape of Lucy was somehow symbolic of the Africans reclaiming what is theirs and Lucy’s acquiescence – not denouncing them, having the child – the acceptance by the white population of the black population getting back what is theirs. I do not fully accept that interpretation but, nevertheless, it is out there.
However, there is another aspect of the book that has been criticised though not as much as the racism aspect and that is the sexism. The rape of Lucy is seen entirely through her father’s eyes and he is locked in the toilet and sees and hears nothing. indeed, even after the rape, the concern is for his injuries and not for what she suffered. Indeed, she wants to keep quiet about it.
She says When people ask, would you mind keeping to your own story, to what happened to you?’
He does not understand.
‘You tell what happened to you, I tell what happened to me,’ she repeats.
For some people this is a lacuna, a key gap in the story, whereby Lucy’s suffering is ignored. This is what Snyckers’ novel is about
Snyckers takes an interesting view. Her novel is written from the point of view of Lucy. In this novel, Lucy is very much a real person. She was a junior university professor and worked in the same department as the important Senior Professor Coetzee. I shall follow Snyckers nomenclature here and use Lucy to refer to the protagonist of this book and Lucy-fiction to refer to the protagonist of Coetzee’s book and John Coetzee to refer to the author as he is depicted in this book and J M Coetzee to refer to the real author.
Lucy, like Lucy-fiction, is raped but the circumstances are somewhat different. Lucy visits her father’s farm where she is raped not by three but six black men. Her father, like Lucy-fiction’s father has had to leave the university following a sexual harassment complaint. When the rape takes place he is not locked in the toilet but breaks in on the rape and drives the assailants away. Lucy takes the morning-after pill so does not become pregnant.
In many parts of the book Lucy is a deliberately unreliable narrator. (I am untrustworthy. But I’m the only access you have to this story.) In this case, she concocts a story about the child she has and how wonderful he is and,only after telling us that, does she admit that she made it up and, as mentioned took the morning-after pill. She uses this technique on several occasions, telling a story and then admitting she made it up.
John Coetzee uses the story of her rape as the basis for his book and, not surprisingly, she is quite bitter about that. She had had three encounters with John Coetzee. The first two were when she was defending her thesis, at which he made sexist remarks. On the third occasion, when she was using the office laser printer, he pretended not to recognise her. However, he clearly knew full well who she was and had studied her, as many of her mannerisms appear in this book and, obviously, he knew about her rape.
In this interview, Snyckers says she has not talked to Coetzee about the book and also adds Coetzee is known for his disinclination to engage with criticisms of his work. He “remains above the fray”. Despite this, she makes what can only be described as harsh and possibly unfounded criticisms against J M Coetzee. However, the rationale for this criticism is fully explained.
Firstly, in this book John Coetzee is a long-standing university professor. He has been writing a long Dickensian novel for many years but has never finished it though it is often quoted. Then Lucy is raped and he writes Disgrace for which he wins the Booker Prize. However, while Disgrace is John Coetzee’s first published novel, it was J M Coetzee’s eleventh and, moreover, his second novel to win the Booker Prize
Secondly, we have the accusations, already mentioned, of his sexism and high-handedness. I do not know how Coetzee has reacted to this (probably not at all) but if it were me, I would not be happy about being fictionalised as sexist, high-handed and as having stolen the story in my greatest (and at the time only) success from a real person.
Thirdly she feels he has no sympathy for Lucy as rape victim. My rape was nothing more than a text that John Coetzee chose to feed off for his novel and By omitting the actual assault, Coetzee creates a performative situation in which his text mimics the very tendency of Western society to turn a blind eye towards rape.
Lucy, not surprisingly takes the rape badly. She discontinues her thesis, even though she has almost finished it. She has therapy. We follow some of the sessions which are quite lively, with the therapist writing a report (which Lucy does not see) suggesting the rape did not take place.
She drops out to all intents and purposes, essentially seeing only her friend Moira. She is bitter, firstly about the rape and secondly about the book. In one of her unreliable narrator stories, she tracks down John Coetzee to Adelaide, Australia (where J M Coetzee does live, as you can see on his Wikipedia page), and confronts him. Women have been the victims of violence long enough. It is deeply misogynistic to use the rape of a woman as an analogy for the just and necessary punishment white people have to endure to atone for their sins. I see where I went wrong. He backs down and apologises but this, of course, only happens in her imagination.
We follow her post-rape, post-Coetzee novel life as she tries to reconnect to the world, till a major plot twist throws her for a loop.
One area where she does gain some celebrity is on what we might call the rape-victim circuit. It seems that various conferences are organised for rape victims to tell their stories and Lucy is a star because of her celebrity. These conferences give Snyckers the opportunity to raise the important issue of victim shaming (she also uses the term slut shaming). Rape victims are often blamed for leading the man on, being drunk, dressing provocatively and on. Even if this were the case, this does not ever justify a man raping a woman.
I would mention in passing that, in Britain, there is considerable concern that women often do not press rape charges. (Most rape victims are raped by someone they know.) When they do, very few assailants are convicted. I suspect Britain is not the only country where this happens.
Her feminist approach does apply not just to how Coetzee describes the rape in his book. I bet you’d prefer a calm, authoritative, third-person narrator to set the facts out for you. Neutrality is a man’s job, after all. One needs an implied male narrator to cut through the hysteria of the feminine perspective and bring balance to the story. The testimony of women is not to be trusted. They are like children in that regard. When she joins the dating app Cinder (sic) she is subject to a torrent of sexist abuse. We see other examples the sexism women face all the time.
However, she is fully aware that there is also a racist aspect. You can understand that racism and poverty make everything worse. When you suffer PTSD as a result of what happened to you, you have access to medicine and a therapist. Most black women have no access to any kind of support. Nothing. It is never even acknowledged that their pain exists.
So what is the solution? You don’t like the narrative John Coetzee has created out of your experience, so set up a competing narrative. Write your own novel. Tell your own story, she is advised. This is her story, her riposte to John and J.M. Coetzee.
I thought this a very clever and original book. Writing about real and still living people, particularly, as seems to be the case here, without their permission, is a risky business and, as I mentioned, I have to wonder how readers and Coetzee himself might take it, even though she does justify it. However, the book superbly explores a host of key issues from the broader issues of sexism and racism to the issue of raped women being victim-shamed, who has the right to tell the stories of real people, particularly still living people, the link between literature and real life, the twists and turns of the legal system and how South Africa is and is not adapting to the post-apartheid era. It also tells a very good story and offers an effective challenge to Coetzee’s novel.
First published 2019 by Picador