Sunday, April 18, 2010

Diary of a Bad Year - J.M.Coetzee

The cover of Diary of a Bad Year says 'Fiction'. Under normal circumstances, I find this too pretentious in novels. Of course it is fiction, I find myself muttering irritably, you are writing it. What else could it be? Oh the perils of snap judgement! Hold that exasperation, JS. This is, after all, Coetzee. Every word in the book is here because it needs to be. Nothing superfluous. I was ten pages into the book when I caught myself looking up the cover again. It did say 'Fiction' didn't it? See? Nothing superfluous.

Diary of a Bad Year is one of the most structurally innovative novels I have read in recent years. It is so cleverly done in fact that the lines between fiction and non-fiction are blurred on every page. Like past Coetzee books, there are few characters inhabiting the book. At the center is Senor C, a thinly disguised version of Coetzee himself. Senor C is a 78 year old South African born author currently living in Australia. In case those parallels with Coetzee weren't enough to clue you in, Senor C has achieved his fame writing a novel called Waiting for the Barbarians. In Senor C's apartment building is a sexy 28 year old Filipino woman Anya, with whom Senor C falls into extravagantly lustful adoration. Alan is Anya's successful investment consultant boyfriend with whom she lives. Three people in a claustrophobically closed apartment building. Enough for Coetzee to build a world around.

Each page of Diary of a Bad Year is split into three parts. The top part is non-fiction, a series of 'Strong Opinions' that Senor C has promised his publisher. The second part is Senor C's own internal musings on his relationship with Anya. The final part is Anya's, her thoughts on the old man who is so obviously lusting after her. When the book starts with this unusual structure, I wondered whether it would even be possible to write a whole book in this structure. Then again, this is Coetzee we are talking about. He ends up creating a book of extraordinary power within this strangely constraining structure.

The 'Strong Opinions' are on a dazzlingly large variety of topics. Some of them, are on the nature of societies, like the opinion with which Coetzee starts the book, called 'On the origins of the State'.

Not only may you not enter the state without certification: you are, in the eyes of the state, not dead until you are certified dead; and you can be certified dead only by an officer who himself (herself) holds state certification. The state pursues the certification of death with extraordinary thoroughness - witness the dispatch of a host of forensic scientists and bureaucrats to scrutinize and photograph and prod and poke the mountain of human corpses left behind by the great tsunami of December 2004 in order to establish their individual identities. No expense is spared to ensure that the census of subjects shall be complete and accurate.

Whether the subject lives or dies is not a concern of the state. What matters to the state and its records is whether the citizen is alive or dead.

How great is that?

Coetzee (or should I say Senor C) goes on in this vein - penning decidedly liberal views on a wide array of subjects. Some of these, it must be said, are so near the boundary, they make you cringe. For instance, there is a 'strong opinion' on the subject of paedophilia. Now when was the last time you saw a serious discussion on the ethical issues involved in paedophilia? Isn't that the ultimate taboo, the one absolute sin no matter what your philosophical leaning? Not so to Coetzee, who opens the can of worms, and peers inside, nary a flinch.

While the non-fiction element of the book carries on in its non-sequitorial way, the story of Senor C's relationship with Anya develops, a third of a page at a time. As the book progresses, the non-fictional and fictional elements of the book start seeping into each other. The line that separated the three sections on each page from each other seems to blur, the stories seem to play off each other. The three independently speaking voices, slowly start forming a conversation. Of sorts.

There are times when this might not seem like a Coetzee book at all. Coetzee is not one to get into politics in any direct manner. But here he is, expounding on Cheney, on the rationale for the Iraq war, on American policy losing its way. Then again, there are times, when you can't forget that this is Coetzee - Like the odd throwaway line that seems to have many dimensions wrapped up into it, as if living in a string theory world -

I hope you don't mind my saying this. It would have been better if you thought I was all natural, I was just being myself, I had no idea of the thoughts you were having about me. But you can't be friends if you are not going to be frank (love is another matter).

See that? Love is another matter.

Diary of a Bad Year is the work of a master at the top of his form. Here is someone who is not just writing a great novel, he is stretching the very definition of what it means to write a novel. Who knew that there was still such structural innovation possible with a novel!

Coetzee asks the question - what is a writer to do in the midst of turbulent times? What role can be play? What can his pen create that is relevant to the times, even as it entertains? The answer: Diary of a Bad Year.

Since 1974, Coetzee has written a book virtually every three years. Diary was published in 2007. So, is it time? I sure hope so!

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