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Acting out

Diary of a Bad Year ; J.M. Coetzee ; Viking: 232 pp., $24.95

December 30, 2007|Art Winslow | Art Winslow, a former literary editor and executive editor of the Nation magazine, writes frequently about books and culture.

He was never waiting for the barbarians. Even in the novel bearing that name, published in Great Britain in 1980, the South African writer and now Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee situated them in our midst. They were not the proclaimed threat on the periphery of the unnamed Empire of his allegory, but agents of the state itself, which had declared emergency powers and taken to seizing and torturing prisoners.

"I knew somewhat too much," reported Coetzee's narrator, a magistrate, "and from this knowledge, once one has been infected, there seems to be no recovering." One could believe that true of Coetzee personally, for variations on the theme of inherited shame infuse most of his novels, and he hammers it again in his new one, "Diary of a Bad Year."

When his aging-writer protagonist, one John C, gives a reading at the National Library in Canberra (the novel is set in contemporary Australia), the press garbles his remarks. Feeling compelled to correct the record (he is not terse but precise), he notes that the South African apartheid state was constructed to fight terror, and although once he considered those who suspended the rule of law in that fight to be "moral barbarians," now he recognizes that "they were just pioneers."

Contemporizing and extemporizing in ways that make "Diary of a Bad Year" feel very unlike a novel and more like diffuse commentary, Coetzee has created a clever superstructure filled with philosophical self-interrogation on questions of political, artistic and erotic moralities. The sense of moral absolutism that raises its head consistently -- what else have we? -- is nothing that readers of "Elizabeth Costello," "Disgrace" or the more recent "Slow Man" will find surprising, and yet it is a fictional device, an extension of the persona of the 72-year-old, childless writer at this book's center, who contends, "Dishonour is no respecter of fine distinctions. Dishonour descends upon one's shoulders, and once it has descended no amount of clever pleading will dispel it."

Using Hobbes and Machiavelli as takeoff points ("We are born subject" to the state; "necessita," or exigency, is the guiding principle), Coetzee's narrator takes on the logic of the modern state and other betes noires, including meat-eating and the killing done in its name, global competition in "free markets," Cartesian thought and rationalism itself, aging and decrepitude, the troubling linkage of the erotic with (the potential for) abuse. "For an old man, after all, what is there left in the world but wicked thoughts?" suggests a young Filipina named Anya, who has been recruited as a typist by the writer. "Senor C can't help it if he desires me."

We find ourselves in an apartment complex in Sydney named Sydenham Towers, and the writer confesses to "a metaphysical ache" having to do with age and regret when he spots the coquettish Anya in the laundry room there. He soon conspires to hire her to transcribe his Dictaphone tapes and maundering handwritten copy into a suitable manuscript for his German publisher. "He records his opinions (drone drone) which I dutifully type out (clickety clack) and somewhere down the line the Germans buy his book and pore over it (ja ja)," comments Anya. "What Hobbes said. What Machiavelli said. Ho hum."

Just as much of Coetzee's novel "Elizabeth Costello" was built from lectures of the famous (fictional) writer from whom that novel takes its name, much of "Diary of a Bad Year" consists of the putative contributions to John C's German publisher, although late in the book we learn that some portions represent outtakes. He has been commissioned, along with other famous writers, to contribute to a volume to be called "Strong Opinions," a collection of pronouncements on "what is wrong with today's world."

"Diary of a Bad Year" is Coetzee's least traditional novel, and one can feel him straining against the form, extending a departure from traditional modes of storytelling that were already evident in his previous works. He uses Anya to question his methods. "I was expecting more of a story," she says. Does she think being a writer is to "rave into a microphone, saying the first thing that comes into your head . . . and wait to see what they will make of it"? "If you tell a story at least people will shut up and listen to you," she suggests. He responds that what she is typing is "a miscellany," and a miscellany "is not like a novel, with a beginning and a middle and an end."

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