Diary of a Bad Year, J.M. Coetzee
Vintage Books, 227 pages
An aging scholar has been asked to contribute to a collection of essays on the state of the world in the early twenty-first century. The publishers are calling the book “Strong Opinions,” and have already procured the German and French rights for the title. Eager to make one final academic contribution, the scholar, known mainly as Senor C, has accepted the offer with enthusiasm, but is not entirely sure that his health will permit him to type the manuscript before the deadline. When an alluring, unemployed twentysomething in a tomato-red dress captures his attention, Senor C offers her the job.
In a brilliant structural risk, Coetzee has divided each page of the novel into thirds. The first section contains the work that Anya is typing, the second section is the voice of Senor C, and the third section contains Anya’s reflections on the situation and subsequent conversations with her jealous, calculating boyfriend, Alan. Each element of this tripartite structure informs the others, undoubtedly paying homage to the multilayered compositions of Bach so loved by Senor C and Coetzee himself. This polyphonic approach does make the novel challenging to read, but the overall effect is astounding in its ability to reveal the effects that the three characters have on each other.
A darkly comic exploration of honour and compromise, Diary of a Bad Year is not a comfortable book. Three simultaneous narrative threads, a few rather appalling ideas in the manuscript, and a cast of dysfunctional characters may leave some readers cold. For those who persevere, however, Diary of a Bad Year is immensely rewarding.