David Pike
2 minute read
2 Oct 2008

The latest Coetzee

David Pike

DAVID PIKE reviews Diary of a Bad Year by J. M. Coetzee. Harvill Secker.

As may be expected from J. M. Coetzee, a question mark and a certain wry humour hover over the very title of his latest book, which is not entirely a “diary” nor is the year in question entirely “bad”. To a degree, the book defies definition.

It contains a series of short “academic” articles on mostly serious topics (on the origins of the state, on national shame, on compassion, on Harold Pinter and many more) – articles which the narrator (who is roughly Coetzee himself) is submitting as his contribution to a German publication entitled Strong Opinions; but the rest of the book contains his account of his dealings with a young woman (Anya) who lives in his building and who he takes on as the typist of his articles, her description of the relationship from her side, and the actions and mostly biting comments, on the woman and the ageing writer, of her boyfriend Alan.

This gives some idea of the great complexity of the book. Every page is divided by horizontal lines into two, often three, sections; and each section contains one “voice”: the writer’s, Anya’s, Alan’s or sometimes dialogue between two of those. This presents the reader with a problem and a challenge: whether to stick to one voice right through the book, then to follow the second voice likewise, and so on, or whether to take the book a page at a time and listen to all three voices more or less simultaneously. This reviewer settled for the second option – it felt as if that is what the author really wanted – but either way, reading the book is much like examining a tapestry with three or four major motifs running right across it, or watching a play with several interwoven stories happening on the same stage. This creates a feeling of intense richness. Every page provides logical, probing, thought-provoking discussions of big current issues, a faintly titillating narrative of what is almost a curious love affair, portraits of three striking and very different characters, and constantly-shifting angles on all the issues involved. “JC” is old, world-weary, highly perceptive and analytical about his “strong opinions”, Anya is young, energetic, street-wise, sassy and has her feet firmly on the ground, and Alan is a viciously cynical and, he thinks, practical young(ish) man. There is even a magpie which makes a sinister impression late in the book.

This is a real page-turner: its “opinions” are short – sometimes one page – clear and sharply incisive; the relationship between Anya and JC is wry and often poignant, and Alan’s increasing triangular involvement with both is intrusive and unsettling. It is an engrossing weave of social, political, literary, psychological, religious and romantic elements.