Published in 2008 by Viking Penguin, J. M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year is not your usual novel. Although not complicated plot-wise and even to a larger extent, simple to follow or deduce from the goings-on, the characterization, story-flow and themes, Diary of a Bad Year offers a departure from the novel format that many readers are used to. Reading page-by-page does not apply here because the reader is presented with sentences that run across pages even mid-way into completing a page.
The book is divided into two parts, the first part titled Strong Opinions and the second titled Second Diary. Each page is divided into three stands. The first strand contains a series of essays, ostensibly written by the main character, Senor C, a 72 year old author, who has been asked to contribute to a German book of Strong Opinions. Here is what we are told about the book.
‘The book itself is the brainchild of a publisher in Germany. Its title will be Strong Opinions. The plan is for six contributors from various countries to have their say on any subjects they choose, the more contentious the better. Six eminent writers pronounce on what is wrong with today’s world. It is due to appear in German in the middle of next year. Hence the tight deadline. The French rights are already sold, but not the English. (p21)
Senor C is attracted to Anya, a neighbor and convinces her to type out the essays he has been commissioned to write. Anya lives with her boyfriend, Alan, who is an investment consultant. It is believed that Senor C is worried about Parkinson’s disease, and that is why he needs a young secretary with nimble fingers to type for him – His Opinions. His farewell to the world.
The second strand narrates Senor C’s first person accounts, and the third carries the voices of both Anya and Alan. covering issues such as democracy, tourism, political life in Australia, universities, Guantanamo Bay, terrorism, anarchism, democracy, pedophilia, the slaughter of animals, asylum in Australia, music, English usage and even more personal stuff.
It is hard to select from the vast, diverse body of essays in the first strand which of them I enjoyed most because they all present high level intellectual essays you ought to tinker to imbibe. In a sense, they are well thought of and well-written. Getting more up-close to the authors personal accounts, I seem to have enjoyed the essay titled, ‘On the Writing Life.’ For instance, in one of the chapters, he writes:
‘Growing detachment from the world is of course the experience of many writers as they grow older, grow cooler or colder. The texture of their prose becomes thinner, their treatment of character and action more schematic. The syndrome is usually ascribed to a waning of creative power; it is no doubt connected with the attenuation of physical powers, above all the power of desire…The classic case is that of Tolstoy. No one is more alive to the real world than the young Leo Tolstoy, the Tolstoy of War and Peace. After War and Peace, if we follow the standard account, Tolstoy entered upon a long decline into didacticism…’ (p193)
Diary of a Bad Year is an all encompassing read, a novel full of ideas, ideas that are thought-provoking and interesting. Although I quite enjoyed the pieces on the essays the most, one is sure to commend Coetzee for keeping track of events even as he takes up the test of a whole new, unique and challenging technique.
Interestingly, the author character in question shares close resemblance to J.M Coetzee, the author of the book. For instance, he is from South Africa but has moved to Australia. Coetzee in real life is a South African who is now living in Australia. Like Coetzee, the author character in the book has authored a book titled Waiting for the Barbarians.