Friday, 28 November 2008

Diary of a Bad Year - J.M. Coetzee

Literary heavyweight J.M. Coetzee returns with… well I’m not exactly sure. Is it a fictionalised excuse for Coetzee to air his thoughts on the world we are living in? Is it a subtle critique of the idea that everyone should have ‘strong opinions’? Is it a biography of an aging man thinly veiled under the guise of fiction?

The plot revolves around a seventy year old writer (who happens to be Coetzee himself) who is asked to contribute to a book entitled ‘Strong Opinions’. He uses the opportunity to air his views on the world, writing essays on the nature of the state, Al Quaida, Tony Blair, and music. But he is losing muscle control in his arms and cannot type up his notes so he hires a beautiful young woman to act as his secretary come surreptitious muse. What ensues is typical old man fiction: slightly perverted, slightly pathetic. Familiar in a sense to the plots of both Disgrace and Slow Man but scaled down. It is a very short book.

Does that sound simple? I can assure you it anything but. Each page is separated into three separate sections: one the essays he is writing; one with his voice on what is happening; and one in the voice of his graceful young Philippino secretary. I am not sure if you are meant to read it page by page, or as three separate stories one after the other.

Overall it is billed as “a thoroughly contemporary novel” and in a way it is. It is post-modern in structure and airs views on the complex world we are living in. The essays are interesting, at times controversial and deeply philosophical. At one point he laments that no one reads political discourses anymore and you get the impression that this is really what he is trying to accomplish – but in a format that will reach a wider audience. If so that is a shame.

I enjoyed reading this but I fear it is a novel that will not live long in my mind. There are some really interesting topics discussed and as a work of non fiction it is intensely interesting, but as a novel, either I missed something, or it doesn’t really quite work.

4 out of 10

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