‘Lacuna’ disputes the rape narrative of ‘Disgrace’

South African author Fiona Snyckers takes on literary giant JM Coetzee in ‘Lacuna’, a novel offering a very different perspective on rape and its aftermath to Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’.

Author Fiona Snyckers says that before she started writing her latest novel Lacuna she believed rape should never be used as a metaphor.

Lacuna is a novel that addresses a Booker Prize-winning rape metaphor, that of JM Coetzee’s celebrated novel Disgrace.

Snyckers says that by the time she had finished writing Lacuna her position had changed.

“Make the analogy, use it, but be prepared for the consequences,” she said. “You will come under trenchant criticism, be prepared for the counter-narrative.”

In Coetzee’s novel the character Lucy Lurie is gang-raped on her isolated smallholding but instead of laying charges against her rapists, she continues to live among them.

In the absence of any real agency on Lucy’s part and of any insight into her interior life, Snyckers set out to critique Coetzee’s novel and its famous central metaphor.

Critiquing Coetzee

In interviews Synckers has stated that she wanted to put the “ugliness” of rape in the reader’s face as a way of arguing: Can you look at this and still turn it into a metaphor?

That ugliness is evident from the opening lines of chapter one.

Snycker’s Lucy will in all likelihood shock you, although the very next second she will make you laugh, and as she does this she will force you to think deeply about South African rape culture.

The Lucy Lurie of Lacuna is so deeply sunk in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that she refuses to call herself a survivor, choosing instead to be identified as a victim.

“I am the wrong kind of victim – the kind that goes off-brand,” she tells the reader.

She is isolated socially and when she leaves the house she dresses to make herself “less-rape-able”, while acknowledging that her behaviour is falling for the “old lie” that women are raped because of what they are wearing.

Lucy’s greatest fear is not being believed; she does not feel believed, even with all the medical evidence of her rape.

“I am the unreliable witness,” she tells the reader. “I am the inherently untruthful complainant.”

“I am untrustworthy, but I am the only access you have to this story,” she says. “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.”

Writing back to masculine narrative

Lacuna clearly sets out to write back to the “masculine” tendency to co-opt women’s narratives.

“There are not many things you can claim for yourself once you have been raped, but surely the right to tell your own story is one of them,” questions Snycker’s Lucy.

Snyckers says Coetzee’s rape metaphor has “stuck in her craw” since 1999, when Disgrace was published, and she couldn’t let it stand unchallenged.

Snyckers argues that she found Coetzee’s rape metaphor “unlikely” as well as not working as a metaphor.

“Gang rape is pitiful,” she told radio show host Eusebius McKaiser, “The overthrow of apartheid was not pitiful.”

In an imagined debate with Coetzee, Snyckers’s Lucy argues: “You can’t declare the country free and ready to move on from apartheid on the back of a woman who has been raped.”

“Your analogy itself is oppressive,” Snyckers’s Lucy asks her fictional Coetzee. “Can you see that?”

“All that stuff about Lucy not wanting to prosecute the rapists because she recognises the validity of their anger,” says Snyckers’s Lucy at one point, talking about Coetzee’s Lucy. “She takes upon her body the sins of apartheid like some dungaree-wearing lamb of God. What utter, utter garbage.”

Lucy argues that Coetzee has been praised as unflinching for holding a mirror up to the “post-apartheid lie” through the use of her rape as metaphor for the “necessary phase of violent overthrow” before a “true post-apartheid era” can begin.

“I refuse to accept it,” Lucy rails. “I refuse to accept that my rape is the best metaphor for the overthrow of the old order.”

“This book, I remind myself, won the Booker Prize,” muses Lucy. “An entire panel of men and women read it and agreed that it was the best work of fiction published in English that year.”

The country did not erupt in “outrage” she argues; it merely “glowed with pride at another “local-boy-makes-good story”.

Lacuna in Coetzee’s literary imagination

Lucy argues in the Snyckers’s novel that “Coetzee apologists” excuse the fact that Coetzee made Lucy a lacuna in Disgrace by arguing that the author was making a feminist point about rape victims being stripped of agency and denied a voice.

Snyckers’s Lucy sees it as “a lacuna in his own literary imagination”.

“Becoming the thing you are attempting to criticise is not the same as criticising it,” argues Lucy. “It is an act of collaboration, not of censure.”

In a country like South Africa that is battling a rape epidemic, Lacuna is a very important book. It is a window into the psychological consequences of rape, the inequality of how rape is experienced across race and class lines and how the police and justice system fail women.

South African patriarchy

All around us men in our country speak about the scourge of rape and sexual violence.

These speeches mean little, are often couched in patriarchal language like “our women and children” and are frequently mere attempts to not be seen to be ignoring these very serious issues.

While Lacuna functions as a critique of Disgrace, it is also a damning indictment of South Africa and its rape culture.

At one point the Lucy Lacuna recalls the police telling her and her father they were lucky to get out of their farmhouse alive, which had been set alight by Lucy’s rapists.

“That was the first time I heard myself described as lucky after the rape, but it wasn’t the last. I was lucky to be alive, lucky not to be more seriously injured, lucky not to be pregnant, lucky not to have contracted AIDS. I have never felt so lucky in my life.”

How we talk about rape, how we think about rape, how we prosecute rape, how we heal from rape, these are questions that lie at the heart of Lacuna and by extension are fundamental to South Africa’s future too.

Battling sexual violence

One of the most revealing scenes in Lacuna involves Lucy finding her way back to sexual intimacy, a challenging road to which many barely give a second thought.

It is one of those moments in Lacuna where Lucy’s voice becomes a crucial one in our national dialogue on sexual violence.

One that says stop talking and start listening.

At one point in the novel Lucy is confronted with toxic masculinity and threats of rape on an online dating site.

The vile messages are not that dissimilar from the tweets threatening rape sent by Economic Freedom Front (EFF) supporters to journalist Karima Brown in March this year. We are not talking about rape as metaphor here. This is the threat of a violent criminal act as an act of intimidation.

The public outrage that followed these threats from EFF members saw women inside and outside the EFF publicly debating these comments, while the men who made them were nowhere to be seen.

Last August, EFF leader Julius Malema, addressing a Women’s Day gathering at the Caluza Sports Centre in Edendale, spoke about the recent suicide of university student Khensani Maseko, who had been raped.

During this address Malema made the comment, “When you rape a woman you take away her soul. So when her soul has left her‚ there is no life left. You have killed it.”

While Malema’s comments were said in a moment of mourning, I wonder how problematic those women trying to reclaim their lives after rape may find his message, which equates rape to death.

We need to be very careful how we speak about rape.

Then there is Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane, who challenged kwaito star Mampintsha to a boxing match over a streamed video that showed a domestic abuse incident with Gqom star Babes Wodumo.

“If Mampintsha has it in him, I’d challenge him to three rounds … he must bring it on,” Maimane said. “Let him pick on someone his own size, because I’d like to take him on.”

It is childish macho responses like these that are going to get us nowhere as a nation in dealing with these problems.

How can the answer to male violence be more male violence? That logic just doesn’t compute.

While Lacuna can be a pause for many South Africans to stop talking and start listening, the people that need to hear its message the most are the country’s men.

The Rape Crisis Centre is on 021 447 9762.

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