DIARY OF A BAD YEAR by J.M. Coetzee (Vintage), 304 pages, $21.95 paper. Rating: NNNN
J.M. Coetzee uses his ear for contradiction and inconsistency to bring off a complex novel.
C., the protagonist of Diary Of A Bad Year is a 72-year-old South African novelist transplanted to Austra-lia, living alone in a high-rise, working on a book of essays.
He’s battling Parkinson’s, loneliness and wry self doubt after a long and honours-filled career in letters, but then he meets his upstairs neighbour Anya, an alluring young Philippine.
Soon she’s installed in his apartment, typing his book, much to the concern of her boyfriend, Alan, a doughy financial consultant with ruthless pro-market values. A slow-simmering black comedy of manners unfolds between the the white-collar yob, his exotic trophy girlfriend and the conscientious man of letters.
Coetzee neatly interweaves three distinct voices. There’s the narrator’s book of essays addressing issues ranging from personal shame over Western tactics in the “war on terror” to the mystical properties of numbers and the decline of English usage. Another, his own personal narrative, deliberately undermines the pronouncements in his essays. And the voice of Anya adds a refreshingly grounded and comic perspective on both the narrator and her boyfriend as they battle for her sympathies.
C. is beyond any real desire for physical intimacy. His unstated war with Alan is more a clash of world views, with Anya’s allegiance the prize.
It’s her rowdy and carefree voice that forms the heart of the narrative. She is intelligently frank about her role as glorified fantasy object for an aging intellectual.
When Alan’s scheming against her employer verges on invasive, the narrative reaches its life-shifting climax.
Coetzee avoids writing a self-aggrandizing polemic in which the better man gets the girl, instead delivering a disquieting meditation on the problems of age, artistic conscience and desire.