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Untimely Meditations

By (March 1, 2008) No Comment

Diary of a Bad Year

by J.M. Coetzee
Viking, 2007

J.M. Coetzee has always excelled at the rancid poetry of self-hatred. Investing in guilt, shame, and titanic humiliation, his novels often seem to live off the interest of their characters’ elaborate, lacerating disgust—sometimes with the abundant cruelty and injustice of the world but always, above all, with themselves. The spinster narrator of In the Heart of the Country, for example, lies awake listening to her father and his new bride strenuously consummating their marriage and thinks about the “thin and sallow” child that her own womb would produce. “But,” she goes on, “who would give me a baby, who would not turn to ice at the spectacle of my bony frame on the wedding-couch, the coat of fur up to my navel, the acrid cavities of my armpits, the line of black moustache, the eyes, watchful, defensive, of a woman who has never lost possession of herself?” Such lavish masochism is the daily bread of Coetzee’s repentant sinners.  

Kafka said that guilt was never to be doubted and thereby turned it into a kind of theology. Coetzee, while certainly inclined to a metaphysical view of the world’s evil, is more willing to put his finger on the palpable source of our moral shame. In his universe we are atoning not for the sin of having been born but for that of belonging to the State. That the sins of the father are visited on the son—or rather, that the citizen is responsible, however obliquely, for the evils committed in his name—is very much the deep theme of his work. Whether they seek to evade it, like the protagonist of “The Vietnam Project,” who is conducting research into the efficacy of US propaganda in Indochina, or in some strange way to welcome it, like Lucy Lurie in Disgrace, who seems to view being gang raped by South African bandits as the historical price she must pay for living on her homestead in the Eastern Cape, a surplus of guilt is always generously doled out to Coetzee’s desperate citizens.

It seems, then, to be business as usual when his new novel, Diary of a Bad Year, opens with the following clarification:

Every account of the origins of the state starts from the premise that “we”—not we the reader but some generic we so wide as to exclude no one—participate in its coming into being. But the fact is that the only “we” we know—ourselves and other people close to us—are born into the state […] The state is always there before us.

This theme is pursued for another few paragraphs until, three quarters of the way down the first page, the reader is halted by a typographical checkpoint: a long horizontal line. On the other side the prospect of a story now seems to open up before us: “My first glimpse of her was in the laundry room. It was midmorning on a quiet spring day and I was sitting, watching the washing go around, when this quite startling young woman walked in.”

Almost immediately, though, the roadblocks begin again and we are back to the origins of the state. This division, this fictive toing and froing, runs throughout the whole book, forcing us to read two (and later three) sections simultaneously. Of course, in Coetzee’s territory the narrative and the discursive are never so easily partitioned. From the terse installments at the bottom of each page, the contours of a situation quickly emerge. An aging South African novelist now living in an apartment complex in Sydney has been asked to contribute to a volume of Strong Opinions, in which six contemporary writers will “pronounce on what is wrong with today’s world.” One day the novelist meets his neighbor Anya, a youngish Filipino woman with “a derriere so perfect as to be angelic.” He claims to have an impending deadline and recruits her as his typist, suggesting that some editorial input might not be out of the question, although it is made quite clear to the reader that the arrangement is a pretext and that Senor C—as his amanuensis calls him—is really acting at the behest of his attenuated but still smoldering libido.

Before long the novel trifurcates, as Anya is granted her own narrow strip of page. This “little Filipina,” however, remains hardly more than an erogenous hologram. We are asked to believe, for example, that she takes just as great an interest in her angelic derriere as her aged admirer: “As I pass him, carrying the laundry basket, I make sure I waggle my behind, my delicious behind, sheathed in tight denim. If I were a man I would not be able to keep my eyes off me.” To her suspicious boyfriend, Alan, an “investment consultant” and espouser of neoliberal views, she comments, “My guess is he unbuttons himself when I am gone and wraps himself in my undies and closes his eyes and summons up visions of my divine behind and makes himself come.” It is difficult to take an interest in a woman who takes such a shallow interest in herself.

Indeed, for most of the Anya subplot we feel as though we are reading not a novel but merely the précis of one; Coetzee’s famed economy has dwindled into miserliness. The real action lies elsewhere. In 1969, Writer’s Digest offered Vladimir Nabokov $200 for a 2,000 word response to the question, “Does the writer have a social responsibility?” His answer: “No. You owe me 10 cents, Sir.” Coetzee, we imagine, would have been less reticent. Senor C’s contribution to Strong Opinions (which of course borrows its name from Nabokov’s fiercely apolitical collection of interviews and occasional prose) is so saturated, and at times clogged, with the horrors of contemporary history that one is almost tempted to ask, “Does the writer have a literary responsibility?” Obviously he does, but confronted with the often quite brilliant tirades against the Bush Administration, Guantánamo, unregulated global capitalism, and the Iraq war that comprise the bulk of the novel, this reader had difficulty weighing the level of Coetzee’s commitment to it.

  Yet Senor C, for all his similarities, is not J.M. Coetzee, and Diary of a Bad Year is not the Op-Ed page of a left-wing newspaper. “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person,” said Oscar Wilde: “Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.” And not just the truth. Behind the mask of fiction, one is free to test the waters of permissible thought; indeed, one can wade right into the unsayable. Thus, faced with the machinations of the Bush Administration on the question of torture we find ourselves returned to the question of ecumenical shame. If the endless reports of mendacity and contempt for legal process are correct, C tells us,

then the issue for individual Americans becomes a moral one: how, in the face of this shame to which I am subjected, do I behave? How do I save my honour? […] Suicide would save one’s honour, and perhaps there have already been honour suicides among Americans that one does not hear of […] Impossible to believe that in some American hearts the spectacle of their country’s honour being dragged through the mud does not breed murderous thoughts. Impossible to believe that no one has yet plotted to assassinate these criminals in high office.

Elsewhere, noting the recent piece of Australian legislation prohibiting any favorable discussion of terrorism, C is goaded into speculation. Is there not some “tragic potential” in the plight of the suicide bomber?

Whose heart is so hardened as to feel no sympathy at all for the man who, his family having been killed in an Israeli strike, straps on the bomb-belt in full knowledge that there is no paradise of houris waiting for him, and in grief and rage goes out to destroy as many of the killers as he can?

But while we are right to hesitate from straightforwardly identifying Coetzee with C, we should also be wary of viewing C’s opinions as merely vehicles for expressing a fictional character, as the rancorous sputtering of a sick and wayward mind. Indeed, if they lacked all cogency, if we were not genuinely disquieted by what they have to say, C’s vituperations would soon congeal into tiresome hysteria. Detached, reasonable, matter of fact in tone, these little shards of restrained fury lodge themselves in the reader’s mind precisely because they are free of the aggrieved and paranoid delivery we usually associate with such views; they are reminiscent—in style as well as content—of Noam Chomsky’s cool statements on the hot subject US imperialism.

It is here that we recognize the nuance and scruple involved in Diary’s ferocity, in the book’s apparent recklessness. For what, we are forced to ask, is the value of a work of art that does not even risk offending our most deeply held convictions, and what sort of society is it in which to call such convictions into question is deemed outrageous and shameful? We can be fairly sure that Coetzee would answer the first question, “of very little value indeed,” and the second, “a society fighting a losing battle to save its honour.”

Giles Harvey is on the editorial staff of The New York Review of Books. His writing has appeared in the TLS, Guardian America, The Believer, The New York Sun, and The Village Voice, amongst other places.

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