Diary of a Bad Year by J M Coetzee

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Diary of a Bad Year by J M Coetzee

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Pages split between political essays, the writer and his typist make for an awkward but memorably different book.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 304 Date: September 2007
Publisher: Harvill Secker
ISBN: 978-1846551208

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An elderly writer, South African but living in Australia, known only as Senor C, has been commissioned to write a rant. Political essays about anything, based on any strong positions he cares to hold, for a German publisher's future collection. They turn out to range from Hobbes and what he says (apparently) about citizenship, through The Seven Samurai to a hatred of Blair and all that is Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and the Australian efforts to catch up with the Bushites as regards anti-terrorism laws.

We know this because we get every word of his quiet, measured essays, that are mildly interesting, but just that - political essays.

While C is starting work on collecting his thoughts he encounters a beautiful and sexy young woman, Anya, doing her laundry. Finding out she's in between jobs, working out which undeserving chap is her partner (Alan, in finance) and trying to keep his heart from being too much a-flutter, he employs her to turn his scribbled longhand and Dictaphone recordings of his essays into computer copy.

We know this because every page is actually split into the two parts - on top, the essay; below it the first person narrative of C where it concerns Anya.

Anya is not particularly political, and might not be the best person to make a precise copy of C's writing, but she soon enters into arguments with Alan about the man, the job and the essays.

We know this because Anya's first person narrative soon joins the other works as a third section of each page.

Now I will admit to starting to read this book the standard way - each page in turn. Silly me - but I soon put that idea aside. I suggest the smoother approach of reading the essays first, until there is a change in the personnel for the page, then going back to catch up. As it is, chapter by chapter (each chapter formed by the conclusion of the relevant essay) the narratives do not match up easily enough.

Such a bizarre style of presentation does a couple of things. First, it makes sure the essays are read in full - if they were first, the narrative would never be reached by several readers. If they were after the story, the book would be discarded before the end. This way I was at least compelled to read them all, but I have absolutely no opinion on them to divulge. They were just there. They give some idea of C's character, of course, but are they there for our edification? Irony? I have no idea.

The other major effect of the book's three-handed approach is to disguise the fact that while pleasant enough, the story of the old writer and his typist is on the slight side. Yes, there is a reasonable long short story here, but nothing much else. The portrayal of a woman engaging with the old man's writing, and the response, could still have been better, but is at the heart of the novel (for that is what the publishers insist on calling it).

If Coetzee really wanted to wake us up to his brilliance (as opposed to, possibly, his politics) he might have made the entire thing incredibly formalist. Each chapter/essay would have had its own self-contained episode of story, with relevant cross-pollination. As it is, the narratives flow past the essays with hardly any coinciding endings, and I think I only noticed three shadows of the essays' topics onto the stories below, out of sixty possibilities.

I did note C include Coetzee's intent in one of his essays ("But why should we always bow to convention?") As a rhetorical question it is one of the more common, and always seems a sensible thing to ask. The sensible answer is that sometimes, conventions are the best way of doing things. Coetzee's approach here was not. I won't forget the book if ever I open it up again and see its three-way split pages, but I won't forget the sense of an ordeal concluded I had when I finished - and I'm sure that's not the desired effect of a book that is distinctively novel, without being a distinctive novel.

I would still like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag to try.

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