- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2008

Senor C, an aging South African professor, has been asked to contribute to a collection of opinions being assembled by a German publisher. He jumps at the chance: “An opportunity to grumble in public, an opportunity to take magic revenge on the world for declining to conform to my fantasies: how could I refuse?”

There is no escaping the fact that “Diary of a Bad Year,” another complex and gratifying novel from Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee, is also part autobiography, part love story and part protracted rant about the state of the world today.

To accommodate each of these angles, Mr. Coetzee has constructed his book in a way that looks more like a puzzle than a straightforward narrative. It is complicated by competing voices: Senor C holding forth on all manner of subjects including terrorism, animal rights, Australia, feminism, Tony Blair, Bach and universities; his young neighbor Anya weighing in on these opinions; and Senor C analyzing Anya analyzing him.

That all three can appear simultaneously on a single page keeps things percolating. An argument can be made that Mr. Coetzee’s brilliance intrudes on his narrative. Dazzling digressions, lacerating questions and linguistic pirouettes dance around what might otherwise have been a simple and engaging story line: Young woman meets aging professor with Parkinson’s. He hires her to type the opinions he will submit to a journal. They begin to bond. Her boyfriend gets in on the act. Boyfriend is a louse and a crook who eyes the professor’s bank account and devises a scheme to invade professor’s hard drive.

It is the growing relationship between Anya and Senor C that gives the book its most touching moments. In the beginning Anya is impatient: “Senor C has opinions about God and the universe and everything else. He records his opinions (drone drone) which I dutifully type out (clickety clack) and somewhere down the line the Germans buy his book and pore over it (ja ja). As for Alan, Alan sits all day hunched over his computer and then comes home and tells me his opinions about interest rates and Macquerie Bank’s latest moves, to which I dutifully listen. But what about me? Who listens to my opinions?”

And what of Mr. Coetzee’s own judgments? Though he earned his fame writing compelling — and sometimes controversial — works set in post-apartheid South Africa few have so explicitly taken up the subject of politics itself. It is not hard to see that the opinions of Senor C, in many instances transparently, stand in for those of the 67-year-old author.

But if political discourse is abundant it is of the most rigorously intellectual kind. Readers are treated to an essay on the origins of the state that invokes Thomas Hobbes and moves along with detours through Machiavellian thought. By the time a reader gets to the present day, Senor C / J.M. Coetzee gets more direct. For George Bush, Dick Cheney and Tony Blair among others, this is not good news.

As Senor C’s opinions about the world are fleshed out, so too grows his relationship with Anya. In the beginning Senor C observes, “She speaks French with an accent the French probably find charming but has not heard of Voltaire. She thinks Kyoto is a misspelling of Tokyo.”

Later, after they have spent more time together, “Was it true? Was Anya from 2514 in any but the most far-fetched sense the natural mother of the miscellany of opinions I was putting down on paper on commission from Mittwoch Verlag of Herderstrasse, Berlin? No. The passions and prejudices out of which my opinions grew were laid down long before I first set eyes on Anya, and were by now so strong — that is to say, so settled, so rigid — that aside from the odd word here and there there was no chance that refraction through her gaze could alter their angle.”

And yet, and yet.

There is a quiet and accrued power to this book that cannot be denied. Long after readers sort through the abundance of trenchant observations about how we humans conduct wars, choose our leaders and treat our enemies, the story of Anya and Senor C lingers.

Toward the end of the book Anya observes, “Whatever you do, don’t allow yourself to get depressed. I know you believe you are not what you used to be, but the fact is you are still a good-looking man and a real gentleman too, who knows how to make a woman feel like a woman. Women appreciate that in a man, whatever else may be lacking. As for your writing, you are without a doubt one of the best, class AA and I say that not just as your friend. You know how to draw the reader in.”

Without a doubt.

DIARY OF A BAD YEAR

By J.M. Coetzee

Viking, $24.95, 227 pages

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