Article: Vivien Horler
Lacuna, by Fiona Snyckers (Picador Africa)
What right do you have to your name and history? Can you object if someone makes you the subject of their fiction?
Do you have less right to your own persona if you are world famous?
These questions were prompted by beginning to read Lacuna, a new novel by the successful South African author Fiona Snyckers.
A leading character in the novel is one John Coetzee, winner of the Booker Prize for his novel Disgrace, and a former professor at the “University of Constantia”.
He has since gone to live in Adelaide in Australia, a feted man of letters. And going after him is Lucy Lurie, a former junior colleague at the university, who believes her gang rape by a number of black men on her father’s farm in the Boland inspired Coetzee’s prize-winning novel.
Now as we know, Professor JM Coetzee, first name John, was a professor at UCT’s English Department. He wrote the Man Booker Prize-winning Disgrace, about a professor who has an inappropriate relationship with a student, resigns his position and goes to live with his daughter Lucy Lurie on her farm in the Eastern Cape, where she is gang-raped.
Lacuna – which means empty space or gap – is narrated by 28-year-old Lucy who is struggling to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder following the rape. She is not an entirely reliable narrator, although so far as I have got in the text she usually comes clean.
Disgrace Lucy opts to let the men who raped her live on the farm with her, where she brings up their child, “a child of this earth”. Lacuna Lucy, on the other hand, takes the morning-after pill and fantasises about heading to Adelaide to confront Coetzee.
Snyckers writes about a fictional Coetzee, and in her novel she has Lucy angry that Coetzee has written about her. Who owns identity in fiction?
In a brief article in the Sunday Times on April 14, Snyckers says she read Disgrace in 1999 when it came out, and had “seldom been so enraged by a book”.
She writes: “The perspective that I felt was missing from disgrace was that of Lucy Lurie, the protagonist’s daughter. Lacuna is my attempt to provide that missing perspective – to explore how a young South African woman might really react to a gang rape.”
Even though he seems to share many of his characteristics and also lives in Adelaid, Lacuna Coetzee is clearly not the former UCT professor. For one thing that Coetzee is an object of some mirth among his students for failing to write anything of significance during his tenure until Disgrace, while the real-life Coetzee was widely admired and had already won the Man Booker Prize once (for Life & Times of Michael K) before Disgrace.
In the Sunday Times piece Snyckers says real-life Coetzee was sent an early version of her manuscript. “I have no idea if he read it or not. It doesn’t really matter. It is our respective books that are now in conversation with each other.”
This is not the first Coetzee novel to have prompted another novel: Nthikeng Mohlele’s book Michael K is a “response” to Life & Times of Michael K.
I think it would be interesting to know what Coetzee thinks of Snyckers’ appropriation of his person and his novel. Given his famous reticence, however, we are unlikely ever to find out.
- I shall write a full review of this novel when I have finished reading it. – VH)
Lacuna – which means empty space or gap – is narrated by 28-year-old Lucy who is struggling to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. She is not an entirely reliable narrator, although so far as I have got in the text she usually comes clean.