Book Review: J.M. Coetzee’s “Diary of a Bad Year”

Natalie Schermer

It’s safe to say that J.M. Coetzee is today one of South Africa’s foremost writers. The notoriously private author received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003 and won the Booker Prize twice, once for “The Life and Times of Michael K.” in 1983 and again for “Disgrace” in 1999. At the age of 72, Coetzee shows no signs of stopping — he’s written three novels since his Nobel.

“Diary of a Bad Year” is one of these more recent efforts and, while it retains the masterful storytelling and referential inventiveness of his other works, also presents a remarkable experiment in form.

“Diary of a Bad Year” is, in the end, a love story, but it’s unlike any other love story I’ve ever read. It tells the tale of an older man, known to the readers only as J.C., who falls in love with Anya, who lives in his building. Unfortunately, Anya is with another man, and J.C. can do nothing but look.

J.C. is a writer, currently working on some “opinions” for an anthology. The opinions are exactly what they sound like — vignettes on this or that, generally political topics, ranging from Guantanamo Bay to British Prime Ministers. J.C.’s motor control is going and he has trouble typing, so, in order to be closer to her and because she’s unemployed, he offers Anya the job of typist: She listens to his opinions on the dictaphone and renders them into text. Thus, with these three pieces — the opinions, J.C. and Anya — Coetzee constructs his story — literally.

One of the most intriguing things about the book is the format. Each page is divided — with lines and everything — into three parts: The first is part of an opinion, the second from the point of view of J.C. and the third from the point of view of Anya. Chapters are broken up by the opinions, with the other stories running continuously. If this sounds weird and sort of hard to read, you’re right — the format can be very jarring, especially at the beginning at the book. I often found myself skimming through the opinion to get to the juicier bits. But it’s in this format and the multiple points of view that Coetzee’s genius lies.

J.C.’s opinions start out hard and formal, dealing with big issues and controversial topics, but as the novel progresses and he gets closer to Anya, it is in the opinions that the changes in his personality are revealed. Anya isn’t shy — she doesn’t hold back and tells J.C. exactly what she thinks about his pretentious opinions. And slowly, gradually, over the course of the book, I started to enjoy the opinions more and more. I didn’t even realize it at first, so subtly had they changed, but as J.C. himself grew softer and more open under Anya’s influence, his opinions did the same thing, and his subjects turned more to subjects like literature or art or philosophical questions.

So if “Diary of a Bad Year” seems difficult and hard to get through at first, give it a chance — that’s how Coetzee meant it to be and it’s worth it in the end.