Diary of a Bad Year

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 September, 2007, 12:00am

Diary of a Bad Year

by J.M. Coetzee

Harvill Secker, HK$280

When reclusive author J.M. Coetzee made a rare appearance at an American university in the late 1990s, to read an excerpt from his boyhood memoirs, he began by telling the audience that his publisher had asked him to clarify whether the book should be considered fiction or an autobiography.

His reply - 'Do I have to choose?' - says much about the South African-born novelist and his writing.

The 2003 Nobel Laureate, who seems to revel in defying classification and creating public confusion - his 1997 book Boyhood was marketed in the US as an autobiography, but sold elsewhere under the banner of fiction - has taken yet another step into a world that blurs the lines between fiction and reality, with the release of Diary of a Bad Year.

Ostensibly, the book centres on a celebrated and controversial 72-year-old Australian author, known only as Juan C, who is invited to contribute a series of radical essays on the important moral questions of our age to a collection entitled Strong Opinions. When he chances on Anya, a beautiful young woman in his building, the ageing writer - complaining of failing eyesight - contrives a plan to employ her as a typist on his latest project. Anya accepts the offer with hesitation and, in doing so, arouses the suspicions of her boyfriend, an arch-conservative investment consultant.

Rather than focusing on his characters and their thought processes, as a traditional narrative might, the majority of Coetzee's latest book is devoted to non-fiction essays written by Juan on topics as varied as paedophilia, intelligent design, the origins of the state, and the avian influenza virus, each topic interspersed with the fictional elements of the book.

The book is divided into three parts - not sequentially but horizontally. Separated into segments, the pages simultaneously include the essays Juan has written, as well as separate first-person accounts from both his perspective and Anya's.

The effect of having all three narratives staggered across an entire book, with each being individually compartmentalised, initially makes for frustrating reading. However, as the book rolls along the narratives grow more engaging and are deftly interwoven. This work is likely to draw comparisons with Elizabeth Costello, Coetzee's 2003 novel, which comprises a series of lessons or lectures on moral issues given by another imaginary elderly Australian author. That book divided critical opinion and was interpreted by some, at least, as a farewell to fiction.

In this latest offering, though, the departure isn't nearly so marked. It's proof of Coetzee's long observed ability to tell a story in the most economical manner. Despite nearly half the book being devoted to essays of a factual nature, Coetzee is still able to craft a complete and satisfying fictional narrative, albeit one told teasingly and through sideways glances, making the book a genuine page turner in its own right.

But the real allure of this new book lies in the essays that comprise the majority of the text. At first glance the subject matter might seem the stuff of so many banal newspaper opinion pieces and academic commentaries, but not in Coetzee's hands.

Endowed with an obvious contrarian streak, Coetzee's narrator covers an impressive amount of intellectual ground in more than 50 short essays, writing with academic rigour - there are footnotes - but also framing his ideas with a poignancy and brevity that's often lacking from the clamour of public and academic debate.

How, then, is one to describe Diary of a Bad Year? Is it a book about writing a book? It could variously be classified as a novel or a novella curiously interlaced with a collection of essays. Or does it fall under the rubric of that increasingly popular academic classification of 'creative non-fiction'? These are questions prompted by so much of Coetzee's recent writing and have consistently eluded definitive answers.

In many respects, they miss the point entirely. Creating or adapting a genre for classification's sake seems to undermine the very deliberate effort on the part of the author to resist labels in the first place. It should suffice to conclude that Coetzee may well be the only novelist around today who can craft books with such genre-bending audacity and, yet, still get it so right.

Once described by John Updike as a writer with an 'innate coldness', Coetzee's mastery of understatement lends his work a seriousness most other writers either no longer value or just don't possess. And it's this same flair for omission that allows him to traverse genres and flout convention, while maintaining the bewildering, perhaps unique, ability to condense irreducibly complex moral issues down to the pithiest and most challenging of conclusions.

And still leave enough room for a compelling story.