Edward T. WheelerApril 6, 2009 - 12:36pm0 comments
Diary of a Bad Year
J. M. Coetzee
Viking Penguin, $24.99, 231 pp.
The South African writer and Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee made his name in the 1980s with Waiting for the Barbarians and The Life and Times of Michael K, darkly elliptical fables that answered the oppressions of apartheid with a grim and comfortless intensity. Coetzee’s fiction typically sets global issues against tight personal dramas of loss, desire, disgrace, and aging, and probes vulnerabilities beyond the merely human. A concern for animal welfare first appeared in a fictional essay, “The Lives of Animals,” and was later incorporated into a novel, Elizabeth Costello, as a subversive speech made by the title character. In Slow Man, Costello reappeared as a virtual dea ex machina to complicate the sexual and personal crises of the male protagonist, a solitary intellectual possessing many traits in common with his originator. Coetzee specializes in this sort of slightly off-center self-examination, using alter-ego fictional characters to present variations on his real self—or, conversely, writing about his real self in the third person, as in his two-part “fictionalized autobiography,” Scenes from Provincial Life. In that work, the stance of detachment only served to highlight the writer’s grave deliberations over his sense of self. Now similar deliberations inform and indeed structure Coetzee’s novel, Diary of a Bad Year.