Book Review: Diary of a Bad Year by J. M. Coetzee
Knowing no other, one assumes it is in the natural order of things to read a book from the top of the page and then slowly scroll down to the bottom (it should be stressed here the language in reference is English). But given a chance it would be interesting to upturn that dull route and begin at the bottom or even bang in the middle of a page, read a paragraph then ascend to the top, read another para and then plunge to the bottom. And interestingly J.M.Coetzee’s new novel “Diary of a Bad Year” affords us that change – to take a detour from the only path we have perseveringly trodden since the advent of the novel or since the beginning of the written word.
Each page is divided into three distinct sections in “Diary of a Bad Year”. The top portion occupies the opinions of a decrepit writer named JC, the ostensible purpose of the book. The protagonist JC is one among six writers from different countries commissioned by a publisher in
JC, unwell and old, feels that perhaps Anya will be the last of his infatuations before he leaves this earthly abode and so he hires her to be close to her. However, JC goes on to construct Anya as a stereotype: a dumb woman with a perfect derriere. “There are times when I stare at dismay at the text that she turns in.” And he derides her enthusiasm for shopping. “What Anya mainly does to fill the dead hours is to shop. At around eleven in the morning, three or four days a week, she will drop off the typing she has done. Come in, have a cup of coffee, I will suggest. She will shake her head. I have shopping to do.”
But ironically in the third section, the narrator is Anya and Coetzee uses her as a tool for self criticism – to give the perspective from below. Says Anya about JC’s writings, “There is a tone- I don’t know the best word to describe it- a tone that really turns people off. A know- it- all tone. Everything is cut and dried: I am the one with all the answers, here is how it is, don’t argue, it wont get you anywhere.” These jabs at his own writings are amusing and there is even a suggestion to treat his decrepit opinions a little lightly as he meanders from the Origins of the state to National Shame to pedophilia to Avian Influenza. He covers a wide of range of topics in his Strong Opinions.
The reading gets a little complex as it tends gallop at full speed in the lower half of the page while on the top, reined in by the highbrow stuff it slows to a trot. The braiding of non fiction and fiction, the prurient thoughts and the intellectual engagement on a single page proves to be an interesting but taxing exercise for the reader.
But this kind of experimentation is not new for this Nobel laureate because Coetzee is a master of experiments. In his previous book “Slow Man” Coetzee had foisted a protagonist-writer Elizabeth Costello of an earlier novel onto the Paul Rayment in “Slow Man”.
In “Diary of a Bad Year”, Coetzee hints that he is perhaps too old to attempt another novel and he expresses regret at having spent his entire life clawing to the top at the expense of not enjoying his life enough.
(First Published by The Sunday Express)