J.M. Coetzee
Viking ($24.95)

by Spencer Dew

The first part of this book, “Strong Opinions,” is a collection of essays written by a man named C., who, like J. M. Coetzee himself, a South African living in Australia, the author of Waiting for the Barbarians, and an acclaimed intellectual whose novels have earned him a fortune. Yet the text of Diary of a Bad Year is separated into three sections per page, with only the top swath relaying a given essay; another strand presents the narrative, from C.’s point of view, of how he met his attractive young neighbor and recruited her to type his manuscript, and the final section of text offers her voice, or, eventually, her recounting of debates between her and her boyfriend, a computer expert who plots to electronically heist money from C.’s accounts. This is no experimentation for experimentation’s sake, but rather a nimble metafiction designed to illustrate the central problem facing C., the intellectual writer, which is not so much the issues of contemporary relevance on which he is voicing his opinion but the multivalent complications of getting those opinions across.

On the page, Coetzee reproduces “the hurly-burly of politics” at its most immediate level—the vicious interpersonal posturing, the poisonous tangles of sexual longing and difference, the tragedy of failed communication of three people in a room together. We hear opinions on Guantanamo Bay, Machiavelli, national shame, bird flu, mathematics, and sex. We hear of the power of South African poet Antjie Krog and the “gumption” of Harold Pinter’s Nobel acceptance attack on Tony Blair. “What he has done may be foolhardy but it is not cowardly. And there come times when the outrage and the shame are so great that all calculation, all prudence, is overwhelmed and one must act, that is to say, speak.”

Yet, through this device of multiple voices and multiple forms of discourse, constructed by Coetzee with tautness and building suspense, everything said by C. in the essays is grounded in the ambiguous mess of relations between him and Anya, his typist, and her nefarious boyfriend, Alan, who also reads parts of the essay collection and ventures his own cynical, self-serving opinions. Unless those opinions are actually pragmatic and wise and it’s the old man, C., who is self-serving, locked in an ivory tower of his own life trajectory, lusting for Anya’s body while underestimating her mind. Anya isn’t innocent either, of course, and mistrust, along with various senses of impotence and doom, provides the engine here, creating a text that relays something more disturbingly true about the zeitgeist than any collection of essays alone could do.

An analysis of talkback radio is never equal to the experience of it, and Coetzee gives us both, ideas clashing with attempts at reception, layers of critique offered and implied. C. spins out academic readings of the world scene, and we see these utterly fail to register as real for Anya, as reader: “Kurosawa. The Seven Samurai. How John Howard and the Liberals are just the seven samurai all over again. Who is going to believe that?” While Anya’s responses start as naïve or dismissive, they become increasingly astute, just as C.’s own integrity is undermined by his lascivious obsessions; his daydreams of Anya “opening her womb in gladness to the gush of his male juices” come across as untethered as his stance of “pity on fundamentalists,” which Anya reads as a deadly mistake linked to the rarified remoteness of academic climes. Violent fundamentalists, she says, “despise your pity. They aren’t like you. They don’t believe in talking, in reasoning.”

To make matters more complex, Anya, who dabbles in modeling, likes to be looked at, and longed for, except when she doesn’t—an infuriating encapsulation of the problematics at play in human society. Neither provocation, nor passion, nor ignorance, nor articulation is total in this text, a state of affairs that echoes C.’s description of his own “political thought”: “pessimistic anarchistic quietism.” He holds to “anarchism because experience tells me that what is wrong with politics is power itself; quietism because I have my doubts about the will to set about changing the world, a will infected with the drive to power; and pessimism because I am skeptical that, in a fundamental way, things can be changed.”

The connections between the twined arcs of essays, events, and opinions are cringingly pronounced, continuing on into the book’s second part, a supplement of less politically charged pieces—an idea suggested by Anya, who wanted, for dubious reasons, to read the writer’s reflections on things like dreams and birds. The strips of text below this “Second Diary” chronicle what happens after the submission of the first manuscript, including a disastrous dinner party where Alan gets drunk and arrogantly boasts about his scheme to rob C., a scheme he didn’t carry out only because of the begging of Anya. Or so he says. Everything must be doubted, evaluated, and reconsidered from multiple points of view.

C.—who can be plenty polyvocal and self-critical on his own—entertains an idea suggested by his critics who hold that rather than being a novelist with the occasional academic post, “at heart he is not a novelist after all… but a pedant who dabbles in fiction.” The efficacy of this is the central issue of the book, the bad year of the title being a year in which the world continues to sink into ignorance and violence, into fanatical, self-centered empires and extremist, close-minded insurgencies—a year in which whether intellectual or artistic discourse (or this brave and masterful fusion of the two) will make any difference is as yet unknown.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2007/2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007/2008