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The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poemsThe St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poemsThe St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
Diary of a Bad Year
by J. M. Coetzee

Viking Adult, December 2007

Reviewed by Ernest Dempsey

J.M. Coetzee’s latest title thrilled me with the idea of seeing literary journaling, something not every famous writer is good at; the fact that I was about to read experimental fiction served with a Nobel Laureate’s first-person commentary on issues of import added to the excitement. Going through the pages of the book, however, brought mixed response– appreciation at places, and disappointment elsewhere.

Coetzee’s book starts quite suddenly with personal, nonfiction commentary on ‘the origin of state.’ Individual journal entries (none actually dated) speak the author’s thoughts on political issues as well as several randomly selected topics (or so it appears), ranging from philosophy and literature to family matters, aging, and the life of a writer. Most entries are short—not more than two pages—and underdeveloped pieces that put mainstream views of popular concepts to question and criticism. The author’s commentary on certain political issues, democracy and freedom of speech, for example, stands as self-contained and insightful, evoking a mode of objective criticism. But on most non-political topics – epistemological, social, and general inertest, including evolution, children’s issues, tourism, etc., --the journal entries suffer from aimless criticism and an amateurish viewpoint. Thus, Coetzee raises the question of whether evolution without intelligent design is possible, but does not offer any view of his own on why or why not; he ponders over authority in fiction, but fails to explore the issue or offer an opinion. When an opinion does come from him (something hard to find), it is so tacitly implied that one feels the author’s reticence against saying anything. 

Despite the categorization of Diary of a Bad Year as ‘fiction,’ only a minor part of the book tells a fictional story parallel to the nonfiction journal entries throughout the book. Strewn aside the author’s thoughts, readers get the story of the elderly writer Señor C who, living alone and working on his next book, employs a young woman, Anya, to bring some spirit of life to his lonely existence. A quasi-Platonic relationship binds the two when Anya, after completing the editing and typing of his book, has to leave him; this is partly in response to her boyfriend’s blunt criticism of Señor C and his motives for hiring Anya. The underdeveloped characters that Coetzee creates (or tries to create) appear little more than ‘mouths’ speaking about the author. His personal details keep appearing in the story, pushing the reader back to an indecisive state of mind on whether a story or a autobiography is being presented. In the middle and end parts of the story, the two narrative voices (one of Señor C and the other of Anya) lose their harmony, untimely revealing the ending itslef and spoiling any chances of reaching a climax. 

The book’s format can partly be held responsbile for not allowing the maturing of any efforts invested in conveying a wholistic experience of lietrary meaning. Coetzee’s commentary on politics and other selcted topics could have made a book on its own, imparting the sense of singularity of a connecting theme or mode of expression. By including a story in two voices, Coetzee does away with the reader’s chances of experiencing continuity in both subject and style (though the latter is fairly distinct through most parts of the book). Lack of detail about the characters, on the other hand, not only leaves them ‘skimpily dressed’ but also lacking any ‘bodies.’ Neverthelss, Coetzee’s sentence structure is reader-friendly, and he does bring his readers to a reflective mood – something every purposeful writer is expected to achieve. The selection of topics invites a scholarly discussion among the readers. What we can criticize most in Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year is the violation of Oscar Wilde’s rule of thumb about art: ‘To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim.’ To appreciate it well, perhaps one needs to go through it again and try to find more.  

Ernest Dempsey is a geology graduate and an MA in English Literature. He has authored two books: Islands of Illusion (poetry) and The Biting Age (short fiction). Dempsey is the president of the World Audience Inc. (www.worldaudience.org) and the editor in chief of the print quarterly The Audience Review.