How does one conquer the urge to say too much about a book whose virtue is in its restraint, its dry, elliptical, pared-down quality? JM Coetzee’s latest novel, Diary of a Bad Year - which like most of his recent work mingles an autobiographical persona with the more ‘normal’ procedures of fiction - centres on the reflections of an ageing novelist (closely resembling Coetzee himself) who has been invited by a German publisher to contribute to a collection of “Strong Opinions” alongside five other eminent writers. The writer, John C, has no problem with generating such material and his views on the contemporary university, Tony Blair and George Bush, and a host of others matters are nothing if not strong and opinionated. They are probably also Coetzee’s own views and they are expressed in a style which will be too unadorned for some but which for me has an attractive pithiness. The dryness of his reflections and his tentative awareness of the shortcomings of his world view modulate into the driest of humour as these essayistic passages are coupled to parallel passages in which the subplot develops of his relationship with Anya, a cheerfully direct young Filipina woman hired as a typist but also for her attractiveness (a bargain about which she is quite unillusioned). Her contemporary idiom (“At a personal level, things are going well with my life”) and the law-of-the-jungle outlook of her boyfriend Alan bring both an unexpected humour and a dash of realism to the emotionally underdeveloped older thinker. Given that this under-story is told in short fragments it develops a surprising interest and is in the end deeply moving.
This isn’t a conventional novel (Hurrah!) and it freely mixes fictional and non-fictional elements but I found it a compelling read, a wise and profound book. There are not so many of those around that we can afford to pass on them.