Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"On the wall a framed scroll in some foreign language (Latin?) with his name in fancy lettering with lots of curlicues and a big red wax seal in the corner."
Another great book from J.M. Coetzee, and this is my 18th review of his work here on Goodreads. The paperback edition of Diary of a Bad Year (2007) has an additional word on the cover, Fiction, in small print. I wonder whether the extra word comes from the author or rather from the publisher: if it were the former it would reinforce the intentional ambiguity of the book's genre, otherwise it may be just a trick to increase sales. Diary is a cleverly structured (and metafictional, see later in the review) combination of non-fiction and fiction. A collection of "strong opinions" on various topics, ranging from the US and Australian politics, through social and cultural issues, to art and usage of the English language (for instance, the rampant overuse of the phrase "in terms of") constitutes - in terms of volume - the main part of the book. Yet the reader will find the fiction component of Diary more important: it introduces a 70-year-old South African writer - identified only as 'C' - living in Australia, and working on a collection of essays in which he presents his strong opinions on a variety of topics. The fictional thread is first narrated by C; then Anya, the other main character, adds her narrative voice. The format of the text is unusual: most pages are divided into three horizontal zones to allow the three threads to run parallelly to each other - the synchronicity plays a role in several places.
In the laundry room of his condo complex C meets Anya, an attractive young Filipina who lives with her boyfriend in the same building, and hires her to be his secretary to type up the manuscript from his voice recordings. It is true that C is losing motor control and cannot type well, yet one can guess that Anya's good looks and her wearing a short skirt have not been unimportant for the hiring. As the work on the manuscript progresses, they learn more about each other and while there is never anything inappropriate - the euphemistic abuse of term 'inappropriate' being another of C's language peeves - about their relationship, at the touching conclusion of the book they become as close to each other as possible without any romantic entanglement.
Mr. Coetzee says - in C's voice - that writing the essays gives him "[a]n opportunity to grumble in public, an opportunity to take magic revenge on the world for declining to conform to my fantasies [...]". C is most vocal about the US administration's shameless use of torture: this was written in 2005-2006, when - as C writes - the "criminals in high office" were "active in every way to subvert laws and conventions proscribing torture". But the majority of C's strong opinions are more fundamental rather than topical. He rants about the idea of the market playing the role of God in modern democracies, and points out one of the major shortcomings of the democratic system: "It is an elementary fallacy to conclude that because in democracy politicians represent the people therefore politicians are representative people." To me, C's thoughts on cultural issues are the most compelling, for example, his take on the fact that faking things becomes the norm in modern society: "In the present 'culture', few care to distinguish - indeed, few are capable of distinguishing - between sincerity and performance of sincerity, just as few distinguish between religious faith and religious observance."
J.M. Coetzee is a mathematician by education, so it's no wonder that C writes about the Zeno's paradox and about the meaning of probability; this is where I should perhaps relate the most, but I have found his thoughts on music, including a touching tribute to J. S. Bach, and the discussion about ownership of body parts even more interesting. The grim passage about mass slaughter of animals that occurs daily all over the world is hard to read and should serve as a wake-up call to us humans: our humanness is clearly in question.
The most fascinating characteristic of Diary is - to me, a devotee of recursion - its multi-faceted and multi-level self-referentiality. Using C's voice Mr. Coetzee writes about his own writing and examines the authority of authors. Even the famous and successful author, he says, like Tolstoy, is an "ordinary [man] with ordinary, fallible opinions." The authors, he continues, do not have much wisdom to offer, and "wisdom is not what they [deal] in." Thus, in a sense, C's words undermine the significance of what Mr. Coetzee himself writes about. For instance, he teases the reader by first offering - as C - a magnificent passage "On the birds of the air", where he describes a certain magpie he knows from the park - "the magpie-in-chief (that is how I think of him)" - and then, in the words of Anya, says that he - C - knows how to "draw the reader in (for example, in the bit about the birds in the park)", thus pointing out how easy it is to influence a reader using purely literary devices. Also, Diary likely contains the most touches of humor among all the 18 works by Coetzee I have read so far. I would rank the sentence quoted in the epigraph among the Top 10 Funniest Moments in Otherwise Really Serious Literature: it does not take much guessing to figure out what this scroll in some foreign language might be.
To me, the book has its most powerful moments in its later part, called the "Second Diary", which opens with the description of a "troubling dream" - a disturbing and desperately sad C's dream about his death. The motif of death returns at the ending, which - despite the grim topic - is uplifting and extraordinarily moving. Diary of a Bad Year takes some time to draw the reader in, but once we are in, this is one of Coetzee's better books.
Four and a half stars.
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