Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee (2007) 178 p.
J.M. Coetzee was born in South Africa and migrated to Australia in 2002. One of the blurb reviews on this copy is from The Age, and refers to Coetzee as a master “we scarcely deserve.” I have no doubt that “we” refers to “we Australians.” I’m also seeing him speak at the Wheeler Centre next Monday, and their description of the event takes care to mention in the opening paragraph that “we’re lucky to have him living right here in Australia” (exclamation mark implied). I suppose the cultural cringe is alive and well, and I suppose I also suffer from it, because I agree – we are lucky, and we do scarcely deserve him. It feels odd to read one of the greatest living writers crisply discussing subjects close to home, such as Australia’s bafflingly cruel treatment of refugees or the Liberal Party’s general philosophy, but it’s very satisfying.
Diary of a Bad Year is part non-fiction, part fiction, and like many of Coetzee’s works, part memoir. (There is, incidentally, no way he’s never slept with one of his students.) The narrator, referred to as “Senor C,” is a South African emigrant to Australia, an acclaimed novelist and academic, who once wrote a book called Waiting for the Barbarians, but who is also much older than the real Coetzee, and who doesn’t appear to have won the Nobel Prize. Senor C has been commissioned by a German publisher to contribute a series of “strong opinions” on various social and political topics, and these short essays make up the first part of the book. If these essays were all that Diary of a Bad Year contained it would be a failure, because they are stiff and authoritarian and lecturing. (They were mostly in line with my own views, but that doesn’t matter.)
But the essays are cut off halfway down the page, replaced with a string of text detailing this fictional Coetzee’s life, and how he employs Anya, his sexy young Filipina neighbour, to type for him. Essays on the outrage of Guantanamo Bay and the poor state of universities and anti-democratic secrecy laws are thus complemented by the lecherous narrative of an old man who, while being intelligent and measured and thoughtful, is nonetheless driven by his dick. And soon a third ribbon of text joins the story – the thoughts and opinions of Anya, who is smarter than she first appears.
Coetzee uses the viewpoints of his fictionalised self, and of Anya, and even of Anya’s boyfriend Alan (who is not given a thread, but has many lines of loudmouth dialogue in her section) to criticise and cast doubt on the strong opinions of the book’s essays. This is a relief, because without them they would possess an insufferable surety, and proper novelist should never really be sure of anything.
The essays often correspond subtly to the theme du jour of the lower stories; at least half the time they correspond so subtly that I couldn’t finger the connections, though I have no doubt they were there; Coetzee is smarter than me, after all. The story at the bottom adds up to a reasonable novelette, and while it lacks the power and potency of a longer work, it was certainly worthwhile.
This isn’t one of Coetzee’s stronger works – it certainly doesn’t compare to Disgrace – but you wouldn’t really expect it to. It’s a neat little post-modern experiment (containing, ironically, a strong criticism of post-modernism) which is quick and concise. It’s not the first book of Coetzee’s you’d want to read, but it is worth reading.