Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee

Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year is described on the dust jacket as a “new work of fiction,” and the word fiction appears on the cover as well, presumably to distinguish the book from something more conventional, “like a novel, with a beginning and a middle and an end,” as Anya, the protagonist’s typist, puts it.

Coetzee’s book is definitely not conventional. Throughout most of it there are three parallel texts: selections from an essay the protagonist is writing; entries from the protagonist’s diary; and entries from another diary kept by Anya.

The parallel texts are in some ways the best thing about the book. Coetzee pulls off the contrapuntal threading quite skillfully. It is not the least difficult to follow. Still, there are problems — though of a subtler nature. Take Anya’s diary. Easy enough to run the protagonist’s essay and diary in parallel, but where does access to Anya’s come from?

And what about that protagonist? We are never told his name. Anya calls him Senor C (another tenant in the building they live in thinks he’s from Colombia). Anya’s boyfriend refers to him as Juan, and the protagonist signs himself in a note as JC.

Juan, of course, is Spanish for John, and Coetzee’s full name is John Maxwell Coetzee. Like the protagonist of Diary, he was born in South Africa, spent some years teaching in the United States, and currently resides in Australia. Both are world-famous writers and, most telling of all, Diary’s protagonist has written a novel called Waiting for the Barbarians, one of Coetzee’s better-known works.

But Coetzee’s protagonist was born in 1934, not, as Coetzee was, in 1940. And, unlike the ascetically trim Coetzee, who doesn’t drink or smoke or eat meat and bikes long distances, Diary‘s Senor C is starting to fall apart. His eyesight is going, he may have Parkinson’s, his teeth are bad, and he smells.

Senor C first encounters Anya in the laundry room of their apartment building — “black, black hair, shapely bones. A certain golden glow to her skin, lambent might be the word.” She is 29. She and her boyfriend Alan — who is 42 and has left his wife for Anya — live many stories above Senor C. The old boy is pleased to learn that Anya is between jobs, since it gives him the opportunity to hire her as his typist — at three times the going rate.

The story, such as it is, centers on relations among the principals, three unequal legs in a sort of emotional right triangle. For Alan understands immediately that Senor C’s real purpose in hiring Anya is to stir the dying embers of his lust. After all, “as a typist pure and simple, Anya from upstairs is a bit of a disappointment…. There are times when I stare in dismay at the text she turns in.”

Anya “likes to present herself as a Filipina,” but “has never lived in the Philippines.” Her father was a diplomat who married a woman he met in Manila, and “Anya went to international schools all over the place,” though with dubious results: “She speaks French… but has not heard of Voltaire. She thinks Kyoto is a misspelling of Tokyo.”

Nevertheless, when Anya challenges her employer’s opinions, she proves more than able to hold her own. He pontificates that “it may help to think of suicide bombings as a response, of a somewhat despairing nature, against American (and Israeli) achievements in guidance technology far beyond the capacities of their opponents.” Anya is unpersuaded: “My guess is you have never in your life come face to face with a real Muslim fundamentalist. Speak up, tell me if I am wrong. No? Well, I have, and I can tell you, they are not like you and me.”

Judging by what appears on the dust jacket, Viking seems to think that Senor C’s political notions — his “response to the present in which I find myself” — are the book’s main selling point. In fact, however, given that Tony Blair and John Howard are now former prime ministers and that President Bush has just a little over a year left in office, Senor C’s strident rage against them comes off usually as daft, sometimes as irresponsible (“impossible to believe that no one has yet plotted to assassinate these criminals”), and always as dated.

This might not matter so much if Senor C’s other ideas had any compelling interest — for this is a book that wagers everything on the cogency of its ideas. Unfortunately, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Senor C has been educated beyond his intelligence. Not that he would ever notice, since it becomes plain toward the end that he has gone through life with an unassailably high opinion of himself. Examples of how fatuous he can be abound — he has, for example, contrarian views regarding child pornography — but we’ll have to settle for a particular “non sequitur into which I had fallen.” Here it is: “The highest intelligences are soon bored, therefore the soonest bored possess the highest intelligence.” Does he — or does Coetzee — really expect us to believe that a brilliant and sensitive “celebrity writer” would commit such an elementary error in logic (“all men are animals” obviously does not correctly convert into “all animals are men”)?

“Ordinary people … cope by learning to sit through things, by letting the mental machinery run slower. They slumber; and because they do not mind slumbering they do not mind being bored.” Might we then conclude that ordinary people will have no trouble making their way through this book? Don’t bet on it.

RATING 5 / 10