I believe I previously in these pages called Nobel winner J.M. Coetzee the finest craftsman writing in English today, and Diary of a Bad Year forces me to agree with myself. The book’s structure–and I’m talking physical as well as literary structure here–gives credibility enough in itself. Three parallel voices appear on each page. On the top, the reader finds objective essays on matters political, philosophical, psychological ranging from Guantanamo Bay to music to motherhood. These are by and large pieces being composed as the novel proceeds, by the book’s narrator, a prestigious author in his eighties, for a German publisher who is putting together a gathering of opinions from literary notables for a non-fiction anthology.
In the center of each page, we find the voice of the narrator himself. On the bottom, that of the fetching young Filipina, Anya, who lives in the same apartment building as our writer. “Juan,” or “señor,” or “senior,” or “C,” as he is variously called, is beginning to suffer the effects of some sort of degenerative nerve disease which makes it difficult to manage either keyboard or pen, so he needs a someone to type his dictated words into an English manuscript which will eventually be translated into German and published along with those of his eminent colleagues. He hires Anya, with whom he is infatuated anyhow, and who is not above feeding his infatuation with a flirtatious mixture of genuine affection and blatant teasing. Their budding relationship stokes the jealous fires of her live-in stockbroker boyfriend, whose animosity leads him to plot some serious embezzlement from a man who could never be a true rival, but whose competition, however imaginary, he nevertheless finds unbearable.
Out of this rather slight plot Coetzee creates a work of great depth and complexity. The interplay between the narrative and the ideas explored in the essays is endlessly intricate and elusive, like light shimmering on taffeta. In addition, Coetzee’s narrator is some incarnation of himself. He (born, 1940) is a good distance away from the mid-eighties of “Juan,” but he attributes the authorship of his own Waiting for the Barbarians to his fictitious altar-ego, and his description of another “acquaintance” sounds suspiciously close to another of his creations, Elizabeth Costello. So which part of “Juan” is Coetzee? Is the real life author suffering from Parkinson’s? Is he taking the incredibly courageous step of imagining and writing about his own descent into infirmity? He’s not saying, but the wondering adds a dimension to Diary that I recall in no other novel.
And, of course, Coetzee, is so much the academic and intellectual, that keeping up with the content–ideas and references–in Juan’s essays presents a challenge in itself. (Not to the extent that Elizabeth Costello did. That one nearly did me in, and I confess I gave up trying to understand it.) So, within this cerebral framework is the wonderfully complex bundle of contradictions–sexy, brainy, practical–that is Anya, her covetous lover, and the lovestruck writer. And Coetzee manages to pack more in this 225 pages than most authors manage in a thousand.
I hope to hell Coetzee’s not sliding into Parkinson paralysis, both for his own sake and for mine. I’m banking on another good twenty or twenty five years, and I’d love to have him in my future.