Friday, 2 July 2010

Book of the Month: Diary of A Bad Year (J.M. Coetzee)

In recent years, J.M. Coetzee, the 2003 recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature, seems to have dispensed with the traditional way of story-telling that we generally associate with a novel. Some of his novels (BoyhoodYouth) were so heavily autobiographical, you wondered why they were not marketed as memoirs. (The third part of the fictionalised memoir, Summertime, was published in 2009.) In 2003, the year he was awarded the Nobel, Coetzee published Elizabeth Costello. The novel consists of seven lectures delivered by its eponymous heroine, whose oeuvre resembles closely that of Coetzee, on subjects as varied as the novel and animal rights. Some of the ‘lectures’ were delivered by Coetzee himself in real life. Quite why Coetzee decided to publish these lectures in the novel form—there was little or no thematic continuity—instead of a non-fiction compendium was not clear to many. Costello gatecrashed into Coetzee’s next novel, too, Slow Man, when she turned up uninvited at the doorsteps of the protagonist, a man called Rayment, and tried to take over his life, much to his resentment. It was left to the readers to figure out why Costello, a famous novelist, decided to descend upon the protagonist who was not a writer and had never met her. If Costello was Coetzee’s literary alter ego, Rayment, a sixty-something man, who lived alone in Australia (Coetzee’s adopted country for the past decade) also had some shades of the real life Coetzee.

In Diary of A Bad Year, Coetzee has created another literary alter ego. He is a famous novelist, originally from South Africa (Coetzee’s country of birth) but now living alone in Australia, who is one of the six writers from all over the world invited by a German publishing company to contribute to a book entitled ‘Strong Opinions’. The writer is referred to, throughout the novel, by his initials, JC (also Coetzee’s initials). JC is a troubled soul. He is troubled about a lot of things which he feels are not right with the world we live in. Since he has been given a cart blanche by his publisher he expatiates on wide-ranging subjects such as the origin of state, anarchism, democracy, terrorism, Machiavelli, asylum in Australia, probability, numbers, intelligent designs, and even Toni Blair. As with the ‘lectures’ in Elizabeth Costello, these musings have little thematic coherence. The conventional novel happens at another level. In the laundry room of his apartment block JC meets a young half-Australian-half-Philippino woman called Anya who lives in the same apartment block with her boyfriend, Alan, who is an investment consultant. She is between jobs and JC hires her as his typist. His eye-sight is deteriorating—so he says—and he can’t type easily—he may or may not be showing the early signs of Parkinsonism. However JC is also attracted to her, a fact that has not gone unnoticed either by Anya or by her world-weary boyfriend. Allan is in no doubt that the only reason why JC has employed Anya without so much as inquiring whether she can type or asking to see recommendations from her previous employers is because he letches after her. Anya has little interest in the topics on which JC opines—indeed she finds his ‘strong opinions’ uninteresting—however, the opinions soon become a regular topics of after-dinner conversations between her and Allan. Allan abhors the socialist idealism of JC—which he dismisses as naive—preferring to see the world in the light of harsh everyday realities. In their conversations Allan alternates between severe criticism and mockery of JC’s view. As the work progresses, Anya begins to suspect that Allan has been secretly reading the manuscripts she has been typing when, in the course of their conversations, he starts referring to JC’s opinions which she has typed but not mentioned to him. When confronted Allan admits to spying: but not on her; he has been spying on JC himself, having introduced a Spyware programme on the hard drive of JC’s computer. If Anya was in two minds about throwing a hissy fit upon hearing this, her doubts are removed when Allan informs her that it is not JC’s opinions—for which he does not care in any case—but his money—3 million dollars—that he is after. Allan has found out about JC’s will according to which his estate would be bequeathed to his sister upon his death. However, the sister has died seven years ago, which means—since JC has not bothered to make a new will—that when JC dies, all the money would go to an obscure animal charity for which JC’s sister used to work. It is an arrant waste of money, according to Allan; and if the doddering fool is disinclined to do anything about it, Allan would do it for him. The investment consultant has cooked up a fiendish scheme (worthy of a Jeffrey Archer novel or a threequal of Ocean’s Eleven) which involves fictitious companies in Switzerland and off shore accounts in the Cayman Islands, and results in Allan (and Anya, if she joins hands with him) becoming very rich and JC not losing his money, provided the stock markets behaved—as Allan is planning to invest the siphoned of money into the stock market (and is confident of reaping a healthy dividend). It is what they call a win-win situation. (If Allan could only look into the future, he would desist from going ahead with the scheme, as he would see the great recession and the collapse of the stock markets.) As it happens Anya threatens to leave him if he carried out his skullduggery. When faced with the stark choice between potentially unimaginable wealth and a trophy girlfriend Allan baulks. However, the lost opportunity, if that is what it is, still rankles in his mind. Therefore, when JC invites them to his apartment to celebrate the completion of the manuscripts, he has to get it off his chest, which he proceeds to do after helping himself to one too many glasses of champagne, and manages to make a fool of himself and insult Anya at the same time. The upshot is Anya leaves him. (One also hopes that JC, having been made aware of the heinous intentions of the investment consultant, would be more vigilant in future). The novel ends with Anya, who continues to correspond with JC, musing over JC’s death (‘We all have got to die, he is old, he is as ready to go as he will ever be.’) and how she would deport when his time comes (‘I will fly to Sidney. . . I will hold his hand. I can’t go with you . . .it is against the rules . . .but I will . . . hold your hand as far as the gate. At the gate you can let go and give me a smile to show you are a brave boy and get on the boat or whatever it is you have to do . . .sweet dreams, and flights of angels, and all the rest.’)

Diary of A Bad Year reads like two novels in one. The narration serves to make the boundaries between the different components more striking. Each page of the novel is divided into three segments, which are separated from one another by horizontal lines. The first segments in the first section of the novel (entitled 'Strong Opinions’) has little direct connection with the remaining two segments, and can constitute a novella in their own right, a la Elizabeth Costello). In the second section of the novel (entitled ‘Second Diary’), the first segments are of the same nature as those in the first section—JC’s musings on various issues except that they are not for the book the German publisher is planning to bring out. The second segment, in both the sections of the novel is about JC’s thoughts on and his interactions with Anya, while the third and the final segment is about Anya’s take on the same interactions plus her interactions with her boyfriend.

Despite the thematic incongruity between the different sections of the novel, it does not feel like a hodgepodge. JC’s views on democracy, terrorism, the response of the Western governments to the threat to their way of life, their treatment of asylum seekers et cetera are very left wing. JC holds Toni Blair—‘[a man with] no philosophical grounding, and little capacity for introspection, and no inner compass save personal ambition . . .’—in contempt and is an unabashed admirer of the late Harold Pinter, the 2005 recipient of the Nobel Prize of literature. Pinter, who was in the terminal stages of cancer when the award was announced, launched a savage attack on Blair in a recorded speech for his part in the Iraq invasion and called for him to be put on trial as a war criminal. JC’s response is: ‘It takes some gumption to speak as Pinter has spoken. . .there comes a time when the outrage and shame are so great that all calculations, all prudence, is overwhelmed, and one must act, that is to say, speak.’ A counterpoising argument to JC’s views is provided by Allan, who prides himself at dealing with realities. Allan tries to distinguish between the Communists, the old foe, and the Islamists, the latest threat to the Western way of life, along the predictable lines. And he is disparaging not just of JC’s views on politics, he also ridicules JC’s views on philosophy and mathematics: ‘Every words he [JC] says is bullshit.’ At times the reader gets the feeling that they are not so much reading a novel as witnessing an Oxford Society debate, albeit an absorbing and fascinating one.

J.M. Coetzee, together with V.S. Naipaul, is the greatest living writer writing in English. In his long and distinguished career he has handled many narrative forms with great success. Disgrace, arguably his most powerful novel (for which he became the first author to be awarded the Booker prize on two occasions), is in the traditional realistic style, as are some of his other novels most notably The Life and Times of Michael K (for which he won the Booker the first time round) and Waiting for the Barbarians. He used the stream of consciousness technique to devastating effect in In the Heart of Country. In all of his recent novels Coetzee has deliberately removed the space between the narrator and his narrative, and is choosing to appear in them under disguises that camouflage little. Thus the readers are encouraged to think that the views of the protagonists are Coetzee’s own view. He also seems increasingly preoccupied with panoply of contemporary issues, which force their way into his novels as essays. In one of the essays, entitled, ‘Authority in Fiction’ Coetzee, via his alter ego, JC, comes closest to revealing what it is that he is trying to achieve in his recent experiments with the form of novel. He invokes Tolstoy whom JC [Coetzee] greatly admires. ‘No one,’ JC remarks, ‘is better at building authority than Tolstoy. In this sense of the word Tolstoy is the exemplary author.’ JC then goes on to remark that in his later life Tolstoy was treated not just as a great author but as an authority on life, a great man, a sage. JC [Coetzee] then wonders whether authority couldn’t be achieved, not just by the trick of rhetoric, but ‘by opening the poet-self to some higher force, by ceasing to be oneself and beginning to speak vatically.’

One wonders whether Coetzee is not aspiring to be a modern day Tolstoy, a great sage, a wise man, and commentator on the human condition.