Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 231 pages; 2008.
The shock of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 had novelists scrabbling for cover. How could they possibly come up with invented characters, invented plots that could match this horrific event? All fiction suddenly seemed pithy and irrelevant by comparison.
But instead of sounding the death knell for literature, 9/11 ushered in a whole host of novels that addressed the event or, at least, used it as backdrop. The subsequent War on Terror has also became a common theme. I’ve read — and enjoyed — a handful of these post-9/11 novels, including Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist, Yasmina Khadra’s The Sirens of Baghdad, and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I was therefore intrigued to see how J.M. Coetzee, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature, would deal with this theme.
Like Frédéric Beigbeder’s Windows on the World, which is a strange hybrid between fiction and non-fiction, Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year treads a similar path.
Here we have a main character, an elderly South African writer living in Sydney, called Juan Coetzee (which I understand to be a thinly veiled version of JM Coetzee himself), writing a series of essays pronouncing “what is wrong with today’s world”. These essays cover all kinds of post-9/11 subjects — Al Quaida, terrorism, democracy, Tony Blair and political life in Australia — and are to be part of an anthology called Strong Opinions commissioned by a German publisher. These essays, quite succinct and imminently readable, are published in full in Diary of a Bad Year and form the heart of the novel.
Then we have a second narrative thread in which Juan develops a crush on Anya, a young, attractive Filipino woman, who lives in the penthouse of his apartment block. Sick of “devising felicitous coincidences” to keep bumping into her in the laundry room, where their conversational exchanges are far too brief for his liking,
Juan approaches her in a local park with an offer he thinks will be too good to refuse: will she be his personal typist?
The third and final narrative thread is told from Anya’s point of view. Acutely aware of her attractiveness, she is at first wary of Juan’s motivations, because she’s far from an expert typist. But as she works on transcribing “the old man’s” manuscript from notes and audio tape, she finds herself becoming increasingly curious of his past. Slowly, she develops a platonic friendship with her boss, but Anya’s live-in-boyfriend, the exceedingly dull Alan, an investment consultant, is suspicious and hatches a devious plan…
As far as substance is concerned, this might all sound rather straightforward, but it’s not. Coetzee does strange things with structure in this novel, so that all three narratives run parallel to one another. This means each page is divided into three unequal parts, with the essays running along the top, Juan’s narrative in the middle, and Anya’s at the bottom. This poses a dilemma for the reader: do you follow it page by page, or narrative by narrative?
I did it page by page, until part way through, I realised I was now reading the narratives out of sequence, because they don’t all flow at the same pace. I ended up juggling three different storylines in my head all at once, which made for a challenging read, but one I found particularly stimulating.
I rather suspect that Diary of a Bad Year won’t be for everyone, particularly if you like your novels to be structured in a traditional manner. But I very much enjoyed the polemics presented here, even if I didn’t much like the character — too creepy, too much like a dirty old man — purporting to be telling them.
I also found it fascinating to witness the growth in Anya’s character, as she comes to terms with the fact that both the men in her life — Juan and Alan — are not the people she thought they were.
This is an interesting book: one that encapsulates the dangerous times in which we live, and experiments with the novel’s traditional form. It’s intellectual, sexual and playful by turns, a great read if you’re looking for something meaty and clever.