“Diary of a Bad Year” by J. M. Coetzee (2007) – 227 pages
What to make of this novel? It is surely unique in its design. Each page is divided into three parts. The top third of each page is given over to opinions that the main character, affectionately named Senor C by his typist Anya, is writing as part of a compilation book for a German publisher. The middle part of each page is Senor C’ thinking about Anya. The bottom part of each page has Anya’s thoughts about Senor C and about her boyfriend Alan. So if you read this book the traditional way, page by page, there is no continuity whatsoever.
I will discuss each of the three parts of this novel separately. First will be the top of the page and the opinions of Senor C (Coetzee?). “Diary of a Bad Year” was published in 2007, and thus many of the strong opinions are about “the war on terror”. “To the bullying, authoritarian, militaristic strand in western political life,” he writes, “the bogeyman” Osama bin Laden “has been a gift from the gods”. I found myself largely in agreement with his opinions, but Senor C is a very serious fellow. I found the opinions somewhat lacking in humor or originality. I would have struggled with this book if it were entirely these. I was expecting fiction.
The second part of each page is Senor C’s thinking regarding Anya. He first sees her in the laundry room where he first notices her short skirt and “a derriere so near to perfect to be angelic”, and he convinces her to become his typist. If you’ve read “Summertime”, you will know that J. M. Coetzee is merciless when it comes to making fun of himself I enjoy this humorous aspect of his writing; it lightens things up.
The bottom part of each page is Anya’s. She knows what effect “my delicious behind” has on Senor C. It is her boyfriend Alan who has all these schemes to get Senor C’s money either by suing him or by defrauding him. Senor C, being an intellectual, pays scant attention to his finances, and Alan sees a perfect opportunity.
Anya does have an effect on the opinions Senor C is writing. The book starts with all of these strong strident opinions of Senor C, but they change to softer opinions as the book progresses.
Back to the original question, what to make of this book. I must say I much preferred “Summertime” which is my favorite Coetzee book so far. “Diary of a Bad Year” certainly gets bonus points for its original design, but it did make for a severely disjointed book. The expressed opinions of Senor C did not completely intrigue me, and I thought the fictional story of Senor C, his typist Anya, and her boyfriend Alan was somewhat routine also. .