three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
33-Mar-Apr-2008
user_rating: 
0

A-Diary of a Bad YearC, an honor-laden South Africa writer living in Sydney, is nearing the end of his career. The top third of every page of Diary of a Bad Year contains C’s political and philosophical musings on current events, part of an upcoming book of academic essays. The middle third of each page consists of C’s diary, in which he relates his burgeoning relationship with Anya, the beautiful woman he hires to transcribe his notes for the essays. The bottom third conveys Anya’s side of her relationship with C and her experiences with a morally bankrupt boyfriend, who hatches a plot to rob C. The complexities of dishonor and morality that each individual strand explores combine to create a thematically resonant whole.
Viking. 240 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0670018759

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"What is rather fascinating about the idea of three strands running on one page is that it allows us to appreciate Coetzee’s genius better. … It’s one of his more approachable reads, and it is a mark of Coetzee’s talent that he is able to enmesh the philistine with the profound with such enviable ease." Vikram Johri

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Contemporizing and extemporizing in ways that make Diary of a Bad Year feel very unlike a novel and more like diffuse commentary, Coetzee has created a clever superstructure filled with philosophical self-interrogation on questions of political, artistic and erotic moralities." Art Winslow

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"As C. explores [old age], he shifts from arrogance to anger to humility and finally to something like mystical acceptance. All this indicates what Diary does, and quite misses what it is: Mr. Coetzee somewhere close to his most serious, and having—and giving—lovely fun." Richard Eder

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[T]he triptych narrative never ceases to call attention to itself, inviting the reader to note the continuous interplay between C’s essay and his diary and Anya’s own earthy take. But as sentences start running unfinished from one section to the next, Coetzee also tempts us to flip ahead, to read each narrative separately, to undermine his own complicated structure." Megan Harlan

Miami Herald 2.5 of 5 Stars
"As the narratives progress, Señor C’s political disquisitions thankfully give way to more philosophical, elegiac meditations upon sexual longing, mortality, Bach, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. … All the same, Diary of a Bad Year proves less than fully satisfying as these final pages are largely subordinated by Señor C’s first-person narrative." Andrew Furman

Minneapolis Star-Tribune 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The elements are so compelling, in fact, that it’s not easy to pin down precisely why they don’t come together as a whole. Coetzee’s technique isn’t a gimmick, but the way it is used here sometimes seems gimmicky, a self-consciously postmodernist presentation of obviously anti-postmodernist ideas, particularly the relentless coarsening of language and music in the modern world." Allen Barra

Critical Summary

J. M. Coetzee, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2003 and is one of only two writers to win the Booker Prize twice, is clearly not content to rest on his laurels. In fact, most critics consider Diary of a Bad Year to be his most ambitious work yet. While the plot itself isn’t particularly innovative, the novel’s complex narrative structure masterfully weaves multiple voices and viewpoints into a beautifully textured literary counterpoint. There are plenty of layers here: C’s biography is, of course, a mirror image of Coetzee’s. As a writer nears the end of his career, what opinions has he formed? What does he want from others—a young woman in particular—and what effect might she have on him? How malleable might his opinions be? Critics disagreed over whether reading each of the three narratives separately or reading a whole page at a time was the most rewarding method, but they generally concurred that, no matter how the novel is read, Diary of a Bad Year is a treat.

Also by the Author

In our profile of Coetzee in our Jan/Feb 2004 issue, we suggested other works: "The Life and Times of Michael K (1983) is quintessential Coetzee—all about race relations, human suffering, and personal salvation and fate. Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) offers a dark look at torture and the role of Other in forming—and breaking down—political and social regimes. And Disgrace (1999), Coetzee’s overtly political look at postapartheid South Africa, invokes his classic themes of law, ethics, politics, and humanity."