Fragmented Book Reveals the Fractured Beings Behind Bold Voices

The publisher prints the genre right on the cover — FICTION — lest there be any doubt, but those who treat J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year as a novel may undervalue the forty-four fierce, penetrating commentaries penned by its protagonist, a certain Señor C. Señor C, sometimes called Juan, shares much of John Coetzee’s biography — he even wrote a novel titled Waiting for the Barbarians, as did Coetzee — but like so many of Coetzee’s protagonists, he suffers from an acute frailty: in this case, he’s older and more feeble than his creator. Ultimately, the resemblance doesn’t matter. Whether the essayist is real or fictional, the essays slice into the pith of real human conditions: “Whether the citizen lives or dies is not a concern of the state. What matters to the state and its records is whether the citizen is alive or dead.” — “On the Origins of the State” “As during the time of kings it would have been naïve to think that the king’s firstborn son would be the fittest to rule, so in our time it is naïve to think that the democratically elected ruler will be the fittest. The rule of succession is not a formula for identifying the best ruler, it is a formula for conferring legitimacy on someone or other and thus forestalling civil conflict.” — “On Democracy” Written with Coetzee’s characteristic eerie clarity, the essays weave through current topics such as terrorism, torture, and suicide killing, and visit concerns Coetzee has taken up as his own, to our great fortune: “To most of us, what we see when we watch cooking programmes on television looks perfectly normal: kitchen utensils on the one hand, items of raw food on the other, on their way to being transformed into cooked food. But to someone unused to eating meat, the spectacle must be highly unnatural. For among the fruit and vegetables and oils and herbs and spices lie chunks of flesh hacked mere days ago from the body of some creature killed purposely and with violence…. It is important that not everyone should lose this way of seeing the kitchen.” — “On the Slaughter of Animals” The essays appear at the top of each page, separated by a line from a story below them, a story that recounts the essayist’s bittersweet longing for the attractive young Filipina neighbor he lures to his apartment as a typist. Eventually the divided page splits again, into thirds, as another narrative takes up Anya’s perspective, revealing the human interior behind a voice we’ve already heard, and revealing a plot by her boyfriend to exploit the aged essayist’s finances. From the essays we learn the powerful and penetrating academic voice of the essayist; from the stories we witness the lonely, frail, vulnerable creature from whom such a voice may issue. That empathy is Coetzee’s first triumph in this book, and empathy may be his greatest contribution to letters. In his career, Coetzee has crossed the salt flats of ordinary human cruelty like a snail bereft of its shell, sizzling with hurt. He’s like a child still bleeding from the first and every wound, even after witnessing the brutality of South Africa and the South Side of Chicago, after surviving the ego-punishing halls of universities, after taking two Booker Prizes and a Nobel. There may be no writer who offers a more stark contrast between his own composed exterior and the reeling vulnerability within his characters: the isolation of the wayward misfit (The Life and Times of Michael K), the peril of the cancerous (Age of Iron), the crushing insecurity of the disgraced (Disgrace). Coetzee writes from a sensitivity more acute than we can fairly ask any writer to bear. And his essayist, Señor C, feels it too, admitting this reaction to a letter to the editor: “In the rough and tumble world of politics, a letter like this counts as no more than a pinprick, yet me it numbs like a blow from a lead cosh.” The only lead cosh we can swing at Diary of a Bad Year falls upon Coetzee’s portrayal of Anya. “Mrs. Saunders says he is from Colombia,” Anya says, “but it turns out she is wrong, he isn’t from South America at all.” It’s a joke at Anya’s expense (could Mrs. Saunders mean Columbia University?), and it’s not a good joke, but Coetzee repeats it later in the book. Okay, so Anya’s uneducated. She utters colloquialisms like “Get real!” but Coetzee forces simplicity upon her, and why make her simple? There’s intelligence in every being, and Coetzee is the writer to find it. He finds the reader’s intelligence and tinkers with it. With fragments of an essay and two stories on each page, how do we read? Should we read each segment page by page, or should we read the essays cover to cover, and then go back for the story? Inevitably the book’s disparate segments interrupt and impel one another, making us reconsider how to read. We learn how the narrative force lingering from a story can bleed across a page to propel an essay, and likewise, how an essay’s argument can impart its momentum to a proximate narrative. Not only do we absorb the usual tension between parts of a narrative or between parts of an argument, but we feel the tension cross over — an argumentative tension as we read a story, a narrative tension as we read an essay. The tension between the segments parallels and complicates the tension between the characters whose voices they represent. The three segments follow different clocks, as well, so the story may refer to an essay not yet written, while the essay titles organize all three segments, sometimes to effect: “On Guantanamo,” for example, stands over not only an essay on Guantanamo, but also over bits of narrative about jobs and lying during sex — and aren’t those little Guantanamos too? Haven’t we all worn those orange jumpsuits? Whether or not Diary of a Bad Year is mostly a novel, it makes reading novel again.
Jeff McMahon is the editor of Contrary. 

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