Diary of a Bad Year (Magill's Literary Annual 2009)
With Diary of a Bad Year, J. M. Coetzee cleverly examines the ways in which people relate to one another, their immediate community, and the international community, by weaving together three separate tales to form an experimental and intellectual novel. Each of the three stories appears on the same page separated by a line, working together harmoniously throughout the novel. The reader is free to read each story all the way through in its entirety, read them one after another within each chapter, or read all three at once. While each narrative can stand on its own, reading the three together provides each additional background, depth, and substance.
The novel’s protagonist, J C, or Señor C, is a somewhat autobiographical representation of Coetzee. Both men were born and raised in South Africa, both taught in the United States, both reside in Australia, both are established authors and educators, and both have coincidentally written a book called Waiting for the Barbarians (1980). The similarities end there, however. Coetzee is well groomed, healthy, and a noted vegetarian, while Señor C suffers from Parkinson’s disease, has poor teeth, wears smelly and fraying sweaters, and eats meat regularly. Older than Coetzee, Señor C reflects upon his position in his later solitary life, lamentingIn public life the role I play nowadays is that of distinguished figure (distinguished for what no one can quite recall), the kind of notable figure who is taken out of storage and dusted off to say a few words at a cultural event (the opening of a new hall in the art gallery; the prize-giving at an eisteddfod) and then put back in the cupboard.
Alone and of retirement age, Señor C has given up writing novels. He does, however, eagerly accept an invitation to partake in a writing effort in which six writers from around the world will share their opinions on democracy, pedophilia, origins of the state, Guantanamo Bay, and many other topics. “The book itself is the brainchild of a publisher in Germany. Its title will be Strong Opinions. The plan is for six contributors from various countries to say their say on any subjects they choose, the more contentious the better, six eminent writers pronounce on what is wrong with today’s world. ” Señor C jumps at the opportunity to collect and to compose his thoughts on politics and society and share them with others. Obsessed with world politics and international relations, he sees this writing opportunity as the perfect platform to express his views and the perfect time to do so since he finds itInteresting that at the moment in history when neo-liberalism proclaims that, politics having at last been subsumed under economics, the old categories of Left and Right have become obsolete, people all over the world who had been content to think of themselves as “moderate”that is, as opposed to the excesses of both Left and Rightshould be deciding that in an age of Right triumphalism the idea of the Left is too precious to abandon.
Señor C’s essays for “Strong Opinions” form the first of the three narratives that create the novel. These writings consist of heady viewpoints expressing Señor C’s, and one can only assume Coetzee’s, opinions on the state of the world. Señor C discusses the origin of the state and how those ideals have evolved into the modern state, concluding thatThe modern state appeals to morality, to religion, and to natural law as the ideological foundation of its existence. At the same time it is prepared to infringe any or all of these in the interest of self-preservation.
The essays offer a harsh critique of the George W. Bush administration, questioning its motives and operations while accepting its power by acknowledging thatWe may thus legitimately speak of an administration which, while legal in the sense of being legally elected, is illegal or anti-legal in the sense of operating beyond the bounds of the law, evading the law, and resisting the rule of law.
Señor C places under equal scrutiny Great Britain, Australia, and other democracies that have supported the United States, claiming, “Democracy does not allow for politics outside the democratic...
(The entire section is 1759 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 2009)
America 199, no. 5 (September 1, 2008): 24-26.
The Atlantic Monthly 301, no. 2 (March, 2008): 104.
Booklist 104, no. 3 (October 1, 2007): 5.
Esquire 149, no. 1 (January, 2008): 19.
Harper’s Magazine 316 (January, 2008): 83-84.
Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 20 (October 15, 2007): 1065-1066.
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The Times Literary Supplement, August 24, 2007, pp. 3-7.