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Diary of a Bad Year

by J. M. Coetzee

The Novelist Finds a New Way to Explore Familiar Themes

A review by Art Winslow

He was never waiting for the barbarians. Even in the novel bearing that name, published in Great Britain in 1980, the South African writer and now Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee situated them in our midst. They were not the proclaimed threat on the periphery of the unnamed Empire of his allegory, but agents of the state itself, which had declared emergency powers and taken to seizing and torturing prisoners.

"I knew somewhat too much," reported Coetzee's narrator, a magistrate, "and from this knowledge, once one has been infected, there seems to be no recovering." One could believe that true of Coetzee personally, for variations on the theme of inherited shame infuse most of his novels, and he hammers it again in his new one, Diary of a Bad Year.

When his aging-writer protagonist, one John C, gives a reading at the National Library in Canberra (the novel is set in contemporary Australia), the press garbles his remarks. Feeling compelled to correct the record (he is not terse but precise), he notes that the South African apartheid state was constructed to fight terror, and although once he considered those who suspended the rule of law in that fight to be "moral barbarians," now he recognizes that "they were just pioneers."

Contemporizing and extemporizing in ways that make Diary of a Bad Year feel very unlike a novel and more like diffuse commentary, Coetzee has created a clever superstructure filled with philosophical self-interrogation on questions of political, artistic and erotic moralities. The sense of moral absolutism that raises its head consistently -- what else have we? -- is nothing that readers of Elizabeth Costello, Disgrace or the more recent Slow Man will find surprising, and yet it is a fictional device, an extension of the persona of the 72-year-old, childless writer at this book's center, who contends, "Dishonour is no respecter of fine distinctions. Dishonour descends upon one's shoulders, and once it has descended no amount of clever pleading will dispel it."

Using Hobbes and Machiavelli as takeoff points ("We are born subject" to the state; "necessita" or exigency, is the guiding principle), Coetzee's narrator takes on the logic of the modern state and other betes noires, including meat-eating and the killing done in its name, global competition in "free markets," Cartesian thought and rationalism itself, aging and decrepitude, the troubling linkage of the erotic with (the potential for) abuse. "For an old man, after all, what is there left in the world but wicked thoughts?" suggests a young Filipina named Anya, who has been recruited as a typist by the writer. "Senor C can't help it if he desires me."

We find ourselves in an apartment complex in Sydney named Sydenham Towers, and the writer confesses to "a metaphysical ache" having to do with age and regret when he spots the coquettish Anya in the laundry room there. He soon conspires to hire her to transcribe his Dictaphone tapes and maundering handwritten copy into a suitable manuscript for his German publisher. "He records his opinions (drone drone) which I dutifully type out (clickety clack) and somewhere down the line the Germans buy his book and pore over it (ja ja)," comments Anya. "What Hobbes said. What Machiavelli said. Ho hum."

Just as much of Coetzee's novel Elizabeth Costello was built from lectures of the famous (fictional) writer from whom that novel takes its name, much of Diary of a Bad Year consists of the putative contributions to John C's German publisher, although late in the book we learn that some portions represent outtakes. He has been commissioned, along with other famous writers, to contribute to a volume to be called "Strong Opinions," a collection of pronouncements on "what is wrong with today's world."

Diary of a Bad Year is Coetzee's least traditional novel, and one can feel him straining against the form, extending a departure from traditional modes of storytelling that were already evident in his previous works. He uses Anya to question his methods. "I was expecting more of a story," she says. Does she think being a writer is to "rave into a microphone, saying the first thing that comes into your head...and wait to see what they will make of it"? "If you tell a story at least people will shut up and listen to you," she suggests. He responds that what she is typing is "a miscellany," and a miscellany "is not like a novel, with a beginning and a middle and an end."

Yet a beginning, a middle and an end appear page by page in Diary of a Bad Year, raising the question of how to read it. Coetzee has constructed his novel like a layer cake, with its narrative threads separated by horizontal lines. Initially the reader is confronted by two layers on the page; soon the layout evolves to three spatially distinct narratives (these are loosely linked in detail, theme and what intimations there are of plot), and even when the center does not hold -- the middle layer is blank white space for 10 pages -- its place is dutifully maintained.

The topmost layer of Diary constitutes Senor C's miscellany, political and topical musings that vary widely and include critiques of the bind in which citizens find themselves ("What the Hobbesian myth of origins does not mention is that the handover of power to the state is irreversible"). He also considers the "anti-social," altered nature of sport under modern technology: Since sport is not life, when humans alone were the judges, what "really" happens was not the central question, since "what matters instead is what we agree has happened." He contemplates the "spectacle" of the detention center in Guantanamo and its orange-suited, shackled and shuffling inmates, as well as the slaughter of cattle ("the notion of compassionate killing is riddled with absurdities") and the depredations of the global marketplace.

Philosophical and phenomenological questions abound in this layer. Along with Hobbes, Coetzee introduces Jorge Luis Borges, and the author's appetite for Borgesian sorts of play and paradox are evident, although his approach lacks the levity that so often attends Borges' stories. A photographer friend of Senor C's "had mastered the art of conducting a love affair through all its stages...wholly within his mind." Yet the writer contends, "we cannot do without the real thing, the real thing" (his friend, incidentally, wound up a suicide).

Readers should be cautious about what the "real thing" is in Diary of a Bad Year. Anya takes at face value that John C is reporting his true convictions, but he warns her, "The opinions you happen to be typing do not necessarily come from my inmost depths." Elsewhere he shows full awareness of the difference "when one speaks in one's own person -- that is not through one's art," and Coetzee even has John C discuss the issue of authority in fictional narrative voice, laying bare the idea that absolutely everything is open to question.

Not in apposition to Senor C's miscellany but existing as a kind of midrash to it -- an annotation and further commentary, in fact -- are the lower levels on each page, which relate the stories of Anya, Senor C and Anya's romantic mate Alan, establishing the details of their lives and their contending perspectives. It is here that the plot development takes place: The borders separating Coetzee's layers turn out to be porous, as a dialectic of influence and argumentation emerges across them. Anya's suggestions of softer opinions, for example, show up in John C's writings.

The most rewarding way to read this novel is to complete each layer by layer. Read the miscellany from beginning to end, then read the layer below it, start to finish, which will move from the bottom of the page to the center shortly after the outset of the novel. This central layer is principally John C's account of what is occurring, until it becomes a lengthy letter he receives from Anya, who has moved away. Last, read the bottom layer, which is related by Anya and takes stock of Alan, the other side of this triangle, a morally challenged financial advisor who believes in Hobbes' struggle of "all against all."

Returning to a longtime theme, Coetzee's narrator calls these "dark times" and asks if dishonor "comes in shades and degrees?" Having described a probabilistic universe, one that is "in some sense indeterminate" whether you are considering 19 cases out of 20 or 19,000 out of 20,000, "which case is the present one?" That's what Senor C wants to know. Strong opinions, anyone?

Art Winslow, a former literary editor and executive editor of the Nation magazine, writes frequently about books and culture.

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