To borough from Vonnegut: God Bless You, Mr Coetzee.  I’ve read little of Coetzee’s others works, but after devouring his latest, Diary of a Bad Year, I’ve resigned to making sure that fact changes quickly.  

This book, which almost antagonistically declares itself “fiction” right on the front cover (as Coetzee is well known for blurring the lines), is actually two, or even three, (seemingly) distinct and separate narratives at once.  More accurately, on each page, a horizontal line separates what is at first two, and then three separate narratives.  On the top, his “strong opinions” covering a wide range of topics from anarchism to Australian elections to pedophiles to Wagner to linguistics to mathematics (and on).  Under that, a first person narrative of being asked to write the above opinions for a forthcoming book which the publisher will put out of many prominent authors and their opinions.  The story grows to incorporate his beautiful neighbor, his lust for her (he’s in his 80’s and she’s 29), and how their relationship unfolds over the writing of the opinions.  Finally, a third narration appears, in the voice of the woman as she talks to her increasingly jealous husband about the author and his “opinions”.  This takes an interesting direction, as the woman’s husband plays the role of the anti-thesis to all the author’s opinions.  As these narratives weave and wrap themselves around, it gets difficult at times to know if the reader is meant to read page by page, passage by passage, section by section… and that confusion adds to the book’s charms.

Much as with Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Coetzee captures one character who largely speaks the “voice” (or at least the worldview) of the author, and another  character who encompasses the essense of the exact opposite belief system.  Also like Dostoevsky, Coetzee didn’t allow one or the other to prove decidedly “right” or “wrong”; they simply debate- indirectly- and the reader gets nothing but questions to ponder.  This is one of his most devilishly devised traps: in issues big and small, Coetzee reminds us just how unfair, just how much suffering goes on in the world.  He makes clear to us that to not know this and feel it is a ghastly reflection of a lost judgement; likewise though, he sets in pretty stark terms just how crazy and marginalized (and powerless) we are to do much  about it.  Perhaps it could be said that he hints to us the answer, but by and large he seems happy leaving us stranded in the middle of that particular desert.

As a former philosophy teacher emailed to me recently: 

Coetzee raises a complicated, rich, and intriguing set of ethical questions in his recent novels. That constellation of moral questions and behaviors is the underlying subject, I think, of Disgrace, of Elizabeth Costello, of Slow Man, and now of Diary of a Bad Year. It’s why I am so taken with Coetzee’s writing. Not only is he a fabulously skilled writer of the language, he is a profound thinker and a profound “feeler.” He raises questions and issues that do, or should, trouble us all. That he doesn’t have any easy answers to the questions he poses is all the more reason, I think, to take them seriously, to try to fathom them too. Why do we all suffer so much? How can we overcome that suffering?

 

 In other reviews I’ve read of this book, many others have taken to wasting our time with their New York Times-style post-modernism’s, their absolute deconstructionism; they want to know under “what authority” Coetzee, a mere author, can choose to lecture us on his beliefs regarding any and everything that comes to his mind.  How boring of them.  Intelligent, caring thoughts, human, sometimes desperate thoughts which come to us as sincere have always and will always justify the authority of the speaker.  Coetzee himself addresses the supposed “death of the author” in his Strong Opinions (On Authority in Fiction):

What the great authors are masters of is authority.  What is the source of authority(?)… what if authority can be attained only by opening the poet-self to some higher force, by ceasing to be oneself and beginning to speak vatically?  The god (authority) can be invoked, but does not necessarily come.  Learn to speak without authority, says Kierkegaard.  By copying Kierkegaard’s words here, I make (him) into an authority.  Authority cannot be taught, cannot be learned.  The paradox is a true one.

 Do yourself a favor: read this book.

Advertisements