Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee


The ability to say two things simultaneously and be comprehended is unique to music and, therefore, to the human ear. That is also a strict definition of counterpoint. To extend this principle to the composition of fiction, where an altogether different sensory organ – the eye – is involved is a radical act, which great writers haven’t shied away from. Witness that famous 34th chapter of Cortázar’s Hopscotch where two narratives unfold alternatingly, one in the odd-numbered lines, the other in the evens. Or take Nabokov’s Pale Fire, in which the poem, the commentary and the index demand to be read together in a constant shuffling back and forth of pages, the sections’ complementarity a gradually enlightening illumination.

J.M. Coetzee’s new novel, Diary of a Bad Year, extends the discreet revolution that he has mounted in fiction since The Lives of Animals to the very form and shape in space that the novel takes. The page is divided into three sections, each containing a different thread, or voice, if you will, running concurrently but related to each other. The topmost section contains small essays, titled ‘Strong Opinions’ in the first half of the book, on topics as diverse as the origins of the state, music, democracy, terrorism, Tony Blair, Al-Qaida, Pinter, paedophilia, Guantanamo Bay. All purport to be contributions from the protagonist – a famous South African novelist, with the initials JC, now living in Australia – to a collection of opinions from renowned intellectuals to be published in German. The second set of essays, titled ‘Second Diary’, are more personal, turned inward, more philosophical and meditative: on the writing life, on having thoughts, on birds of the air, on Bach and Dostoevsky. The second third of each page is a first-person account, from the 72-year old JC, of how he meets a very beautiful woman, Anya, in the laundry room of the building they both live in and asks her help to type out ‘Strong Opinions’ for him and in the process falls in love with her. The last third of the page is Anya’s first-person perspective of her involvement with JC and his project and her relationship with her investment consultant partner, Alan. Alan takes an excessive interest in the friendship between the old man and his girlfriend and the stage is all set for a collision, not just the age-old clash between two men who are enamoured of the same woman but also between the old order and the new, socialist intellectual versus neoliberal grabber, quietist thinker versus brutal man of action.

Coetzee is redrawing the very contours of the novel and taking it places where it has rarely been before. Always a fluid, generous form that can smuggle in pretty much anything within its capacious folds, it is receiving in this master’s hands a formal and an intellectual redefinition. How far can plot and narrative be dispensed with to accommodate intellectual and political analyses that have commonly been the preserve of other genres? How can the storytelling structure be bent, buckled and reshaped to tell a complex story and simultaneously, outside the story, take the pulse of democracy in the age of late capitalism? Never less than an uncompromisingly intellectual delight, the book offers manifold exaltations, one of which is the ways in which the three strands braid with each other, some of the linkages metaphorical, some gradually illustrative in oblique, sly ways, yet others musical in their picking up of tones, variations and themes. But make no mistake, it is no playing ground of cerebral games, for the quietly melancholic meditation on ageing and mortality that it modulates to towards the end, and the way it inflects the interaction between JC and Anya, can break your heart. Springing from ‘the disgrace of being alive in these times’, it is, surprisingly, not as bleak as Coetzee’s earlier works: there is the whisper of redemption here, both creative and personal, and it achieves an unexpectedly lyrical timbre in the introspective essays of the ‘Second Diary’. To witness new possibilities flower in this cross-pollination between fiction and non-fiction, to listen to its reframing of the question, ‘How does one live?’, and to the answers it offers, is to be filled with nothing short of exhilaration.