Diary of a Bad Year
J. M. Coetzee
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J. M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year is a meditation on the current state of the world from one of our most important authors. The book begins with a short essay on the idea of “The State” with reference made to Kurosawa’s masterpiece The Seven Samurai. At the same time, via text sharing space on the same page, the reader is made privy to an aging man’s story of his blossoming obsession with a female neighbor. Soon his object of desire, Anya, claims her own portion of each page.
In this ingenious game of a book, the plot itself is relatively simple. The aforementioned older writer bumps into a young woman in the laundry room of his apartment building. Infatuated even as he is aware they will never become romantically involved, he hires her to be his typist. The manuscript she’s typing, titled Strong Opinions, turns out to be the series of deeply moral and soul-searching essays that occupy the top third of each page of Diary of a Bad Year. While Señor C hires Anya based on her physical charms, he gradually learns she has more to offer than sex appeal. Her plain-spoken critique of the essays she’s being paid to transcribe goads him into rethinking his view of his opinions and the audience for his writing. At the same time, his interest in her ideas makes her truly embrace the fact that she is a person with a mind in addition to physical beauty.
Anya lives with her boyfriend, an intelligent, arrogant, and ruthless investment banker named Allan who has begun reading the essays Anya is typing. Anya and Allan argue about the ideas in the essays as well as about Señor C’s designs on her. Allan believes the despairing Señor C is an idealistic dinosaur who is using Anya to fuel his sexual fantasies. Anya recognizes that there is another way of thinking besides Allan’s purely economic view of human interaction and believes Señor C’s affection for her is sincere rather than lecherous. Ultimately, she feels trapped between the two men (and their points of view).
These clashing worldviews are brought into sharp relief when Señor C asks Allan to become his financial advisor. Allan soon reveals to Anya that he has implanted a spying program on Señor C’s computer and has learned he is dying of Parkinson’s disease and plans to leave all of his small fortune to an animal welfare charity. Reasoning that he and Anya would put the money to better use, Allan has created an elaborate plot to steal Señor C’s estate upon his death. Anya, often bullied by Allan, stands up to him and forces him to abandon the scheme. Finally, after Allan rages at Señor C during a drunken tirade, Anya leaves them both behind.
Provocative in its ideas and satisfying as a story, Diary of a Bad Year exhibits the steady and straightforward tone for which Coetzee has been known throughout his career. Here, his lucid prose is in service of a passionate statement against the current state of affairs in Washington D.C. and London as well as a poignant story of a dying man yearning, ultimately, for love.
John Maxwell Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1940 where he grew up speaking English despite the fact his parents were not of British descent. He holds a PhD in English, linguistics, and Germanic languages from the University of Texas and has taught widely in the United States including the State University of New York, Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University, Stanford University and the University of Chicago. Coetzee began writing fiction in 1969. His early books, including Waiting for the Barbarians, which won him an international following, were generally more allegorical than his current work. Life & Times of Michael K won Britain's Booker Prize in 1983, an award he won again in 1999 for his novel Disgrace. Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003.
- The form of the book is radically different from most novels. What effect did the way Coetzee chose to tell his story have on the way you read it?
- Señor C. writes: “The modern state appeals to morality, to religion, and to natural law as the foundation of its existence. At the same time it is prepared to infringe any or all of these in the interest of self-preservation.” He goes on to say that the average person can live with this contradiction. Do you believe either or both of these ideas are true?
- In the essay titled “On Terrorism,” Señor C. offers something of a defense or justification for the actions of suicide bombers. Are you convinced?
- Anya later explains her real life encounters with Muslim fundamentalists. How do the ways she and Señor C discuss these ideas reveal their characters? What might Allan say about the debate?
- “So what is going to save you from dishonor, Señor?” Anya asks in Chapter 18. She is referring to the dishonor that citizens of America, England, and Australia suffer through the actions of their governments. “Who are you expecting to rescue you?” she asks. This idea of “rescue” seems an odd idea. To what do you think they are referring?
- Following the idea of shame being something that can come form one’s own actions or actions taken in one’s name, Anya tells a story of being raped in Mexico. She tells Señor C. that if something happens that isn’t one’s fault, you ought not feel shamed. When Señor C. suggests that the actions taken by the young men who raped her bring him shame and probably make her ashamed, too, she becomes angry. How do you feel about this idea of collective versus private shame? In what ways are they different and in what ways the same?
- How does the way Anya sees Señor C. in her diary differ from the way we see him in his own? And vice versa?
- What do Señor C, Anya, and Allan want? What is the deepest desire of each of these characters?
- The section titled “On Birds of the Air” reads as something of a fable. It discusses notions ranging from tolerance and freedom to ideas of human nature. It is on the same pages as some of Allan’s tirade. How do the two narratives play off of one another?
- In the end, Anya leaves both men behind. What do you make of the letter that closes her narrative? What does it reveal and not reveal?
- Coetzee provides very little in the way of visual detail or back-story about these three characters and the places where they live and work. Why do you think he chose this strategy?