Coetzee Does Coetzee (Sort of)

The Nobel Prize winner's latest work is a tricky mix of essay, fiction, and memoir

"Rhetoric is heard," Yeats said. "Poetry is overheard." The truth of that statement and the friction created by J.M. Coetzee's noble effort to bring politics and poetry to terms is at the heart of his latest novel, Diary of a Bad Year.

Coetzee, a native South African who now lives in Australia, is regarded by many as the greatest living novelist in the English language, and despite that Nobel Prize gathering dust on his shelf, he can't be accused of complacency. Diary of a Bad Year is his most technically ambitious work yet, a three-tiered concoction that attempts to meld essay, fiction, and confessional memoir. (The novel's main character is an aging writer named Coetzee who refers to a novel called Waiting for the Barbarians, which, published in 1980, brought international fame to the real Coetzee.)

There is a plot, though you have to solve the puzzle of Diary's structure before it can kick in. The fictional Coetzee is asked to contribute some chapters on cultural and political subjects to a German publisher for a book entitled Strong Opinions(a jibe, perhaps, at Nabokov, who used the same title for his collected interviews and loathed the use of political themes in fiction). The second layer reads like a transcript of the fictional author's personal thoughts over the period in which the essays were written—this constitutes the diary of the book's title. The third stratum, written more in the form of a traditional novel, involves the author's evolving relationship with his Filipino secretary and a clash with her cynical and amoral boyfriend.

Three-dimensional chess, anyone? Oz transplant J.M. Coetzee
photo: Bert Nienhuis
Three-dimensional chess, anyone? Oz transplant J.M. Coetzee

The three streams are presented on each page, their separate texts stacked one on top of the other; the reader must quickly decide on the proper way to read the book—each thread all the way through to the end of the book, or one page at a time, moving downward from layer to layer. I opted for the second approach, which made the novel seem like the literary equivalent of the three-dimensional chess Mr. Spock played on Star Trek. While frustrating at times, this method rewards by revealing Coetzee's extraordinary gift for literary counterpoint, a talent not unlike that of the composer he has often expressed the most admiration for: Bach.

I fear I've made this sound more difficult than it actually is; all three elements are compelling and are pulled together by themes both minor (an older man's lust for a younger woman) and major (the redemptive powers of genuine love and acceptance) that readers of Coetzee's great recent novels, particularly Disgrace (1999) and Slow Man(2005), will be familiar with.

The elements that compose Diary of a Bad Year are so compelling that it's not easy to pin down precisely why they don't come together as a whole. Coetzee's technique isn't a gimmick, but the way it's used here sometimes seems that way. There's an odd mismatch in this self-consciously postmodernist presentation of obviously anti-postmodernist ideas, which include Coetzee's loathing for the coarsening of language and music in the modern world. The rhetorical points presented by the fictional Coetzee range from the provocative (why do political leaders who remained unruffled during decades of nuclear threat react with near hysteria to "the pinpricks of terrorism"?) to the banal ("Democracy does not allow for politics outside the democratic system," which Shaw observed a century ago). Since they are all ideas that Coetzee has pursued at length in both his fiction and nonfiction, one wonders why they are being reprised here—and more to the point, why they are presented behind a shadow version of the author.

A book that strongly resembles Diary in form is Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow (1986), the strange and fascinating work by Canadian cult poet and fictionist Brian Fawcett, which is composed of a series of essays on the deterioration of memory and historypresented on each page beneath short stories that reflect their themes. I know how I'm supposed to take Fawcett's speculations, which are up-front and out there; I'm not sure how to take those of Coetzee's Coetzee. The device of presenting opinions through a second-hand version of oneself can't help but make us question the seriousness with which Coetzee means for them to be taken. No sooner, it seems, is any philosophical or political position asserted than its integrity is undermined. It's as if the real Coetzee was deleting the thoughts of the fictional Coetzee as we read, which can hardly be the effect that the real Coetzee was aiming for.

In the end, Dairy of a Bad Year, for all its careful craft, draws us in just to put us off again. You can hear Coetzee's unmistakable voice, but this time around you may have trouble overhearing it.

 
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