Friday, July 20, 2007


"'I am being asked to issue an apology about which I may not be sincere?'

"'The criterion is not whether you are sincere. That is a matter, as I say, for your own conscience. The criterion is whether you are prepared to acknowledge your fault in a public manner and take steps to remedy it.'

"'Now we are truly splitting hairs. You charged me, and I pleaded guilty to the charges. That is all you need from me.'

"'No. We want more. Not a great deal more, but more. I hope you can see your way clear to giving us that.'

"'Sorry, I can't.'"

The speakers here are not involved in a Stalin-era show trial; they are two characters in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace. The first speaker, David Lurie, is a professor who has had an affair with a student, who has now filed a harassment complaint against him. The second speaker is the head of the university committee that has had a hearing about the complaint.

At the hearing, as Lurie says, he pleaded guilty to all charges (beyond that, he even admitted that what he had done had been wrong). But "we want more," says the voice of the committee.

Sometime after I read Disgrace for the first time, I came across a description of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission that reminded me of this scene and made Coetzee's "committee of inquiry" suddenly read like an allegorical critique of the TRC:

"The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission differed from its Latin American predecessors in two crucial respects. First, it heard the testimony not only of victims but also of the officials responsible for killing and torture. They testified in exchange for amnesty, which was provided only to those who acknowledged and fully disclosed their crimes. Those who did not acknowledge and disclose wrongdoing left themselves open to prosecutions; several have been tried and convicted for killing ANC activists. Second, the TRC's hearings were public and were broadcast, greatly heightening the impact of testimony by both victims and perpetrators." (Aryeh Neier, "The Quest for Justice," New York Review of Books, Volume 48, Number 4, March 8, 2001)

I have always wondered whether South Africans might immediately read Coetzee's scene in such terms.


SarahJane said...

to be honest I was at first hesitant to read Disgrace because I wasn't not well grounded in what was going on in and i figured any south african writer would also occupy himself with the topic. but I knew enough, and in fact the book is a marvelous book whether you know anything about s. africa or not. enjoyed your post. interesting point - i remember the scene. cheers

Brian Campbell said...

Have you read Francine Prose's "Blue Angel"? Trial by political correctness... with a literary twist.