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Michael Gorra on J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Diary of a Bad Year’

Posted on Jan 17, 2008
book cover

By Michael Gorra

  Halfway through J.M. Coetzee’s 11th novel there’s a chapter called “On music,” a series of elegantly phrased pensées that moves from bird songs to the heroic narrative of the 19th-century symphony before it ends by marking the difference between two masters of the German Baroque.  For Bach, we read, it seems that “any musical germ ...[contains] endless possibilities for development,” but with Telemann the work “sounds like the execution of a plan rather than the exploration of a potential.”  “Diary of a Bad Year” is not precisely a self-reflexive novel, the kind of book in which the writer pulls himself out of his own hat; it’s nothing so simple.  It does, however, provide an implicit set of instructions for reading, and none more pregnant than these words about music.  No one will doubt either this book’s intelligence or its artfulness.  A final judgment, however, will depend on which composer one thinks it most resembles.


book cover


Diary of a Bad Year


By J. M. Coetzee


Viking Adult, 240 pages


Buy the book

book cover


After Empire: Scott, Naipaul, Rushdie


By Michael Gorra


University Of Chicago Press, 218 pages


Buy the book


Coetzee was born in South Africa in 1940, English-speaking but of Afrikaner stock, and grew up in a world in which almost every human relation received the impress of apartheid, the strict separation between the races imposed by the white minority government.  He left the country as a young man, but after receiving a doctorate in linguistics at the University of Texas he returned to begin a teaching career in his native Cape Town and first gained international attention with his third novel, “Waiting for the Barbarians” (1980).  Yet where other important South African writers—figures like Nadine Gordimer or Andre Brink—chose to write explicitly about their nation’s ills, Coetzee adopted a more elliptical, indeed almost allegorical mode.  He set “Waiting for the Barbarians” on the border of an unnamed and apparently preindustrial empire and wrote in the voice of a local magistrate, a man forced to acquiesce in the new violence imposed by the central government.  Soon he himself becomes subject to torture, and soon the government’s fears produce the frontier rebellion it had hoped to forestall.  The novel’s relevance to South Africa was at once clear and imprecise.  It brought us the news, as Gordimer did, and yet it had no documentary value as such—seemed both to address and yet refuse the burden of its local conditions. 

Coetzee won Britain’s Booker Prize for his next novel, the 1983 “Life and Times of Michael K,” a fable that set an innocent Everyman wandering through South Africa’s violent landscape.  The book’s geography is exact, but though the author leaves no doubt about the man’s race, he never once mentions it.  Coetzee has a deeply political mind, yet he prefers to use a moral language instead—to couch his book’s questions not in terms of justice so as much as in those of guilt and shame and conscience.  Most of his characters would be happy to avoid politics all together, to be left alone in their gardens, and the conflict between that desire and the demands of their world is reflected in the obliquity with which the author himself approaches such issues.  He received a second Booker for “Disgrace” (1999), in which he chose, atypically, to write directly about a recognizable national present.  But its picture of post-apartheid South Africa was far from celebratory.  Indeed it suggested a world of spreading disorder, and the book was sharply criticized at home, a criticism given extra fuel by the book’s international success.  Coetzee had for years spent much of his time abroad, often at American universities, but by the time he won the Nobel Prize in 2003 he had moved to Australia, where he recently became a citizen. 

His prose is always accessible but his books are always difficult, as one might expect from a disciple of Kafka and Beckett, and they have been praised as much for their formal qualities as for their acts of witness.  I suspect that will be especially true with “Diary of a Bad Year.”  The situation Coetzee invents for us here is at once rudimentary and complex.  He uses an Australian apartment building for his setting and employs just three characters, each of them defined, at first, by little more than his or her narrative role.  There is a writer in his 70s whom we know as JC.  Then we have the half-Filipina Anya, whom JC first sees in a “tomato-red shift” of startling brevity, and her boyfriend Alan, a “plump and ever-sweaty” investment counselor.  JC meets Anya in their building’s laundry room and almost immediately hires her, at three times the going rate, to transcribe his thoughts for a book called “Strong Opinions,” an “opportunity to grumble in public” commissioned by a German publisher.  There’s a suggestion he has Parkinson’s, that he can no longer manage a pen or a keyboard, but really he’s paying for her wiggle, and she knows it; knowing too that “If I were a man I would not be able to keep my eyes off me.”  And Alan encourages her—suspicious, yet also drawn by what he learns about JC’s money. 

They will each have their steps to perform, a dance so spare as to seem abstract.  But that trio is not, in itself, the most important of the possibilities Coetzee has for development.  Go back to those words about Bach.  They come from a chapter called “On music,” and their rhetoric of argument and example belongs to an essay, not a novel.  In fact, every one of this book’s 55 short chapters begins with that preposition, as though we were reading Montaigne, and anyone who opens this book will immediately notice something strange about it.  In Flannery O’Connor’s words, “it looks funny on the page.” 

Choosing at random, I crack the book to Page 102.  It’s split into three pieces of text, with lines to separate them and a lot of white space too.  The top of the page offers an extract from “Strong Opinions”—here, on risk and the laws of probability.  The second, rather short section contains JC’s narrative of his relations with Anya.  These two bits are present from the start, unequally dividing the page, but once Anya enters JC’s employ they are joined by a third, her own account of the book’s two men.  To complicate things, JC’s narrative is in places entirely composed of Anya’s words—that is, of what he has heard her say—and Anya’s of Alan’s.  Coetzee will use this layout in many ways, and in practice it proves easier to follow than it looks.  I found it best to read straight through, rather than taking a chapter’s worth of JC’s notebook observations on Guantanamo or pedophilia and then going back to follow out the narratives.  For the different parts of the page talk to one another, and though the relation between its head and its foot rarely becomes obvious, it is never in the least accidental.

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By Ted Swart, January 19, 2008 at 3:38 pm Link to this comment

Yes indeed I would never describe myself as half English half Afrikaans since I am undoubtedly Heinz 57 varieties—with English, Scots, Irish, Dutch, French, German, Swiss, Flemish, Malay and Negro blood in my veins. Since so many people in Canada are of mixed racial/country origin many refuse to answer the question—on some census forms—which enquire about racial origins.
Like Australia and unlike South Africa Canada still keeps tenuous links to the monarchy. My guess is that both will drop this in the not too distant future—with Australia becoming a republic first.

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By Douglas Chalmers, January 19, 2008 at 1:57 pm Link to this comment

By Ted Swart, January 19: “South Africans who left SA for greener pastures have gone to Australis rather than Canada…”

Australia might be more of a S.African equivalent for white SA expats than Canada, Ted. Apart from the fact that they were once both part of the same Gondwana Land and the Australians joined the English in the Boer war, the native inhabitants are also black.

That must make the ethnic Dutch feel quite at home as well as the English SA’s. We know that there is no such thing as an ethnic English person, though, so I don’t quite understand the reference in the article to Anya as a “half-Filipina”. That’s why I thought it was Gorra’s words rather than Coetzee’s.

Ask any Philipino (also Filipino/Pilipino - Filipina is the feminine) and they’ll tell you that most Philipinos are “half-Spanish” or even “half-Chinese” anyway. There are not that many “pure Philipinos”. Thus , I doubt if Coetzee would have made that blunder - but Gorra certainly would.

Anyway, would you describe yourself as a “half-English” or me as a “half-Scot”? Beats me why they must insist on categorizing Asians and others like that. As it is, one of them made an ill-informed choice as they didn’t appear to identify what Anya’s “other half” might be.

In referring to Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) and Australia, by the way, did you know that there are black Zimbabwe refugees/migrants going to Australia now, too? Neil Bisoondath’s “Selling Illusions—The cult of Multiculturalism in Canada” sounds interesting and that would also apply to the Australians.

It was supposed to be the “fruit salad” rather than the “melting pot” version of a multi-ethnic society but who is it that spoils it? Both countries have a significant white Anglo population and they mostly do tend to live in the past and their illusions of a faded British empire still.

Even the Australians voted for a constitutional monarchy with a foreign British queen a decade ago rather than be brave enough to choose the freedom of a republic. If that isn’t crawling, I don’t know what is, uhh. They’ve been going backwards ever since. No wonder people keep leaving there.

Just as well, then, that Canada is half French. Apart from that, I am told by Chinese, too,  that Canada is a more attractive option to migrate to than Australia. But maybe Coetzee settled in South Australia simply because the short title for the state is SA - the same as SA for South Africa, ha ha?

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By Ted Swart, January 19, 2008 at 11:33 am Link to this comment

Douglas.  You say:
“Interesting how you ended up in Canada despite your critisism of it in relation to racism.”

It is just one of those accidents in life.  I never planned to come to Canada but was invited to come on sabbatical leave because of my research and—- while I was here—I was offered a job (in 1977). And, since Rhodesia was in a state of upheaval I decided I’d better accept the job. So my wife and I have now retired in Kelowna—with three of our four children and 5 of our 7 grandchildren right on the spot.
Despite any criticisms I might have about Canada if I was personally offered a choice I would pick Canada over Australia.  Nevertheless I think Canada’s official multiracial policy is a crock. It almost forces different cultural/religious groups to assiduously maintain their differences.  Thus it is that an Indian(real Indian not aboriginal) Neil Bisoondath felt forced to write a book called “Selling Illusions—The cult of Multiculturalism in Canada”.  In life we are often forced to take the good with the bad and—on balance—I am glad I ended up in Canada. 
Lousy climate I admit—but here in Kelowna even the climate is not so bad.

You go on to say:

” Ted. Again, I find myself asking the question of how Coetzee would have felt, first in going to the USA and secondly in migrating to Australia?

I don’t have much of a clue how he felt and feels. Many more of those South Africans who left SA for greener pastures have gone to Australis rather than Canada and most of them seem to have weathered the transition reasonably comfortably.  Getting away from the alarmingly high crime rate is—I think—a relief no matter where you go.
You question why I referred to Zimbabwe so much—since it does not really feature in Coetzee’s books.  The reason is simple.  I lived and worked in Rhodesia for 20 years—got married there and all our children were born there. All helped into this world by the same gyneacologist, who has now ended up in Australia!

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By Douglas Chalmers, January 19, 2008 at 3:52 am Link to this comment

Re: More on South Africa…...By Ted Swart, January 18: “America toppled Saddam Hussein and just as those in Southern Africa, who crafted the arrival of black government, imagined this would solve all problems and negate tribalism…..”

Interesting how you ended up in Canada despite your critisism of it in relation to racism, Ted. Again, I find myself asking the question of how Coetzee would have felt, first in going to the USA and secondly in migrating to Australia?

I had hoped that you would have cast more light on how he thought as a S.African. Forgive the cynicism, but you have digressed into Kenya and Zimbabwe - although perhaps not without reason.

My characterization of Australians was not without reason either, though. That is the setting of the current novel under review, “Diary of a Bad Year”, after all. Ever since the race riots in Sydney in 2005, things there have changed.

Recently, Australians have been seen as mere “monkeys” by South Asians after a racist clash with sporting teams from from India playing in Australia. Again, Australian police maced exuberant Greek tennis fans this week.  What would you expect me to say in their defence?

Sitll, apparently the novel is as much about Coetzee’s opinions on the war on terror, al Qaida, George Bush,  Machiavellian politics and so forth. Pity then that he didn’t just blog here with us on Truthdig, eh?

Into that, he draws something more of a Gauguin’s “And the Gold of Their Bodies” (French Polynesia) than any literary begging or borrowing from other writers’ works,,2155838,00.html despite Morra’s ravings of a has-been reviewer :-

She has black black hair, shapely bones. A certain golden glow to her skin, lambent might be the word. As for the bright red shift….. at last we find out that Morra’s “tomato-red shift” is not some new discovery of quantum physics/astro-physics but “the last thing I was expecting was such an apparition…. because the tomato-red shift she wore was so startling in its brevity.

By the way, this book was reviewed as far back as July last year. Why are we only seeing it on Truthdig now? Flagging sales, perhaps? See and on Australia:-

When the phrase “the bastards” is used in Australia, its reference is understood on all sides. “The bastards” was once the convict’s term for the men who called themselves his betters and flogged him if he disagreed. Now “the bastards” are the politicians, the men and women who run the state. The problem: how to assert the legitimacy of the old perspective, the perspective from below, the convict’s perspective, when it is of the nature of that perspective to be illegitimate, against the law, against the bastards…...

So, at least we now know that Coetzee has some understanding (since 2002) of the predominant white Australian culture if not exactly of how the other dozens of Asian and South American and European and African ethnicities who have arrived there fit in. His pre-occupation with Anya’s ass doesn’t really help except in as much as it describes the male paradigm.

I gues that I might as well not bother to describe my own visit to Adelaide where Coetzee supposedly now lives, uhh.

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By Ted Swart, January 18, 2008 at 9:05 pm Link to this comment

Thanks Douglas.  That’s the most lucid comment I have yet seen from you.  Whilst your harsh characterization of Australians has some truth in it, it strikes me as somewhat overblown. 
Ditto for your comment on the differences between Afrikaans and English South Africans.  There is actually a huge amount of overlap.  On my father’s side of my family tree I descend from Dutch/South African ancestors (which includes lots of French Huguenots) – going all the way back to 1652—and on my mothers side of the family it is pretty well all British (especially Cornwall) with some Irish thrown in.  So I am fluent in both Afrikaans and English and went to both English and Afrikaans universities (now,interestingly enough, all – at least partly— English). 
I (and my family) have ended up in Canada since 1976 because my research brought me here (by invitation).
The main difference between South Africa and Canada or America is that the colonists in North America were so aggressive in their colonization that the aboriginals are massively outnumbered – with only something like 3.3% of the population here in Canada.  It is always a cause of quiet amusement to me that Canada was one of the harshest critics of SA’s apartheid policy but runs its own apartheid system with the myriads of so-called Indian reserves. 
Financially bankrolling dependency cultures for generation after generation is simply evil personified.  The little noted truth is that after the end of the last world war the newly elected South African government actually sent a delegation to Canada to learn how they ran their reserves which they then copied – to some extent—in their own Bantustans!
There was huge misapprehension with respect to both SA and Zimbabwe that all would be well if the reins of power were handed over to the majority of the population. No one took due note of the strength of tribal affiliations and the extent to which they cause internal conflict.  We see this in action right now in Kenya with tribal differences being at the heart of the current wave of violence after the crooked elections.  In Zimbabwe one of Mugabe’s first actions was to carry out a genocidal attack on the minority Matabele.  And, in South Africa the election of Zuma as President of the ANC is largely tribally based – with Zuma being a Zulu.  The most commonly spoken language in the largest SA city (Johannesburg) is not English or Afrikaans but Zulu.
Mugabe has completely wrecked Zimbabwe because of his lust for power and his vicious – tribally linked—racism.
Because of being hooked on oil – with massively unnecessary overconsumption – America toppled Saddam Hussein and just as those in Southern Africa, who crafted the arrival of black government, imagined this would solve all problems and negate tribalism the American government fondly imagined that getting rid of Saddam Hussein would put Iraq back on the right road – despite the Sunni Shia cleavage.
Despite the massive expense and loss of life the Iraq war has solved nothing and has most probably made things worse.  Oddly enough it would cost virtually nothing and only take a few days to get rid of Mugabe and bring him to justice. But Zimbabwe has no oil!
Forgive the cynicism.

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By Douglas Chalmers, January 18, 2008 at 6:51 pm Link to this comment

More on South Africa…...

Thanks for your response, Ted. I had intended to add some comments rather than make statements as (a) I am not an authority on Coetzee and (b) I wanted others to join in a conversation. I was also trying to separate out the reviewer’s own garbage from the authors’ intentions/identity - thus the conversation is still at a starting point and I have simply (hopefully) added to what could be discussed.

My experience with white South Africans is that those of Dutch origins are somewhat different in their thinking to those of English origin. But, then again, there are differing types of Dutch people too.  J.M. Coetzee is more of a Robert Scheer look-alike. I haven’t met him myself (at least never had a conversation with him) so I can’t make any further assessment. Perhaps you could, though, Ted?

It is difficult for a country that was colonized (S.Africa, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, etc etc) when there were once only spears and arrows on one side and now everybody has guns. Any previous tribal tensions and instabilites must then be evolved through with great difficulty as their own Machiavellian personages attempt command and control for their own gain and aggrandizement.

But you must read my comments in context with the article or the person I am responding to as I have often used their own words in my comment/reply and not always italicized simply from lack of time. Thus, my comment about ”...are Coetzee’s writings solely relevant to South Africa, really, and are they as clear in that regard as they were intentionally imprecise…”  relates to Michael Gorra’s “The novel’s relevance to South Africa was at once clear and imprecise”

More about J.M. Coetzee from Wiki - on becoming an Australian citizen in 2006: Coetzee said that “I was attracted by the free and generous spirit of the people, by the beauty of the land itself and–when I first saw Adelaide–by the grace of the city that I now have the honour of calling my home.” One wonders how much those statements were in comparision with his life in S.Africa and in the USA, both of which have various levels of entrenched repression. Perhaps it was just that he hadn’t yet discovered the other side of Australians, the stinginess, the small-minded but pretentiousness, and their own repression of native Australians and resentment of Asians?

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By Ted Swart, January 18, 2008 at 9:40 am Link to this comment

Interesting to see you in action again Douglas. 
I do so wish that you could write in a manner which is easier to understand. Take this parageph for example:

**  Thus, are Coetzee’s writings solely relevant to South Africa, really, and are they as clear in that regard as they were intentionally imprecise? That is as unclear as the fact that we are told that Coetzee was brought up in an English-speaking home despite being of Dutch/Polish origins.**

It seems to me that your own writings on TruthDig are both intentinally imprescise and uunnecessarily contorted. I cannot make head or tail this paragrsph.  What on earth are you trying to say.

I was myself bron in Capet town of 50% Afrikaner stock—as witnessed by my famly name “Swart”.  I left ofr Rodeia—as it then wa—in 1956 to get away from apartheid and take up a post at the newly formed University College of Rhodesia and Sotuh Africa. And Zinbabwe as it now is has gone backwards instead of frowards under the rule fo a cruel an racist man.

I confess to having read only one of Coetzee’s books namely *Disgrace* and I can identify with everthing Coetzee says. All is not well in South Africa and although it may not yet be as bad as Zimbabwe under mugae it show signs of getting worse.  If Zuma comes to power it is hard to tell what is in store for SA. Zuma reactly held a fundraisng celebratory meeting with the guest of honour (sic) being no less a pesoange than the convicted rapist and ear biter Tyson.

In my own view SA could have followed a better path if the world at large had not adopted such a self-righteous attitude. SA was kicked out of the Olympics for lack of racial fairness but never welcomed back when they changed their policies in this regard.

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By Douglas Chalmers, January 18, 2008 at 2:15 am Link to this comment

I wonder how “the impress” of a doctorate in linguistics at the University of Texas (1960’s) was received by Coetzee who had grown up “in a world in which almost every human relation received the impress of apartheid”?

Perhaps “Waiting for the Barbarians” was as much inspired by his time in the USA - and as much descriptive of the black/white apartheid era at the beginnings of its end in America? It was as much the product of white barbarians as the apartheid in South Africa was of the (white) Dutch Boer-trekkers/ Christian fundamentalists in a similar time-frame.

Thus, are Coetzee’s writings solely relevant to South Africa,  really, and are they as clear in that regard as they were intentionally imprecise? That is as unclear as the fact that we are told that Coetzee was brought up in an English-speaking home despite being of Dutch/Polish origins.

By the way, though, in regard to “Diary of a Bad Year”, what is a “half-Filipina” (Anya)? Is that national/ethnic error Michael Gorra’s (this article)? I would think so as that is still sadly typical of the impudent English who continue to falsely look down their noses at the rest of the world.

Moreso, Gorra refers to Alan, a “plump and ever-sweaty” investment counselor without giving a clue as to his ethnicity. Are we expected to simply assume that he is a white Anglo-Saxon just because the setting is Australian? That again is so-oo typical of the conceited racial mindset of the English - and especially in regard to their former colonies.

Obviously, we have to actually read the book to get around Gorra’s intrinsic cultural biases but it is about racism in Australia - or is it? They had an apartheid there too - and a couple of slavery states once. Of course,  Coetzee is white himself so will we ever quite know?

But “an older man’s pursuit and indeed (imagined) use of a younger woman” in his care one way or another as “a student or an employee or even near to a slave”  is nothing new in itself and not even in regard to slavery. So the sexual relationships ultimately shape our view of the world just as much as it did for the slavers of the past who had their uses for the bodies of their victims in more ways than one.

Sadly, with Gorra, the typical literary reviewer as much as Coetzee is the non-typical writer, so much of this article is wasted, especially latterly, on his boring compulsory (compulsive?) comparisons with well-known authors of the distant past. Why do these people so insist that no person since could ever have thought of an original ploy or line themselves but must have always referred to the works of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy for their form never mind their inspiration?

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