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Book Review

Diary of a Bad Year

Justin Cartwright

There are so many indications in this astonishing book of John Coetzee's reverence for the great Russian writers, that I was driven to read Tolstoy's scene of the death Ivan Ilyich again. The titles of Coetzee's two volumes of biography, Boyhood and Youth, are borrowed from Tolstoy, and his finest book, The Master of Petersburg, is a tribute to Dostoevsky. Diary of a Bad Year is about a famous South African writer in his seventies, crippled by Parkinson's but also by his solitary and cold nature, now living alone in Australia. He is asked to contribute some opinions, the more extreme the better, to an anthology for a German publisher. He has lost his appetite for constructing novels.

We realise that this can be read as another instalment of the biography, but set some way in the future. (Coetzee himself is 67.) A young woman, Anya,lives in the same apartment block, and John C (whom she believes comes from Colombia) offers her a little deal: he pretends to need a typist, she is temporarily out of work. The relationship, rather more satisfying than a similar one in Slow Man, is remarkably subtly described.

The structure of the book is intriguing and very deftly handled: John C writes his opinions on a variety of subjects: universities, Tony Blair, terrorism, the rights of animals, democracy, Australia, anarchism, the misuse of language and much more, and all these are wonderfully expressed and perceptive. But then on the same page Coetzee describes not only John C's motives for passing this high-minded stuff through the hands of young Anya just one level above a bimbo but also her reactions to what she sees as rather old-fashioned opinions. He begins to see that his opinions may be irrelevant, faced by the new realities, whatever they are. Anya is well aware that the elderly author is enjoying close proximity to her youthful sexiness. And then, it turns out, so is her boyfriend, Alan, a financial adviser and something of a crook.

As Anya comes to like and admire John C, despite his decrepitude, she becomes more concerned about her boyfriend's motives: he wants her to give him details of the writer's bank accounts and investments. The boyfriend believes that he comes from the real world, where every man is set against every other man in a financial, national and philosophical struggle, almost the exact opposite of what John C has been arguing in his "strong opinions". There is quite a lot of sly humour about the pedantry, coldness, unsociability, inability to describe place and lack of social ease in John C's work, supporting the distinct impression that this is the final volume of the autobiography of a great writer, musing on the dying of the light, although on this evidence the light burns as brightly as ever.

There are also some fascinating insights: John C falls foul of his adopted country by suggesting that the premier John Howard, took his lead from South Africa in his enthusiasm for repressive measures against terrorism, including torture. The Australian writes that he should return to Zimbabwe or wherever he came from if he doesn't like Australia. There is no attempt now to maintain a disguise: in this context John C mentions his book Waiting for the Barbarians. But it is a surprise that this hostile reaction should have affected him so profoundly. "What a sheltered life I have led! 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 leaden cosh."

It is a revealing book, a wonderful book of essays, a subtle and touching near love story, and an autobiography, an extraordinary account of John Coetzee's deepest preoccupations and beliefs. In the gradually revealed loyalty and decency of Anya, Coetzee seems to suggest rather regretfully that he has neglected love and warmth in his own life.

The candour is deeply moving, but somehow expected from this profoundly serious writer. If you are interested in literature, ideas and the reach of art deep into the heart of humanity, you must read this book.

This review first appeared in
The Independent (UK)

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