Thursday, March 6, 2008

Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee

My first Coetzee, unbelievably. I'll be reading many more.

This is a delightful, multi-leveled, multi-layered novel that reminds me of a three tiered chess game, and gamesmanship is the operative term here.

The setting is an apartment building and actually each page is divided into three sections. The top section is occupied by the writings of Senor C, a South African born 72 year old author of some renown living in Australia, an obvious stand-in for Coetzee himself. The contents of this uppermost section is a manuscript of his "opinions" being prepared for publication in Germany, lofty thoughts on a myriad of subjects including, Harold Pinter, Australian politics, apology, probability, Zeno, the afterlife, the body, paedophilia, terrorism, the slaughter of animals, the nature of the state, compassion, avian flu, competition, Guantanamo Bay, Al Qaida, Dostoevsky, boredom, ageing, JS Bach and the list goes on.

The middle section is comprised of Senor C's more informal, intimate thoughts about a young Fillipina he meets in the apartment building's basement laundry room. More than forty years his junior, he is nevertheless smitten with Anya and decides that he will make her his "secretaria" (secret aria) by offering her the job of typing his manuscript.

The bottom section is written in Anya's voice. She is a street saavy survivor who immediately sees through the old man's ploy, and uses her sexual assets to draw him in. Her crass, oversexed, money-hungry boyfriend Alan isn't terribly pleased with the arrangement. He concocts his own plan to use Anya (who is using Senor C, who is using her in turn) to steal the dormant wealth amassed by the old man from his writing.

The narrative is a multidimensional house of mirrors. Suspicions give way to trust and vice versa. Perceptions and realities alter as positions shift. Anya's down-to-earth, heartfelt beliefs begin to 'soften' Senor C's writings as the two draw closer in a relationship of genuine mutual affection.

My favourite line comes from a section titled Insh'Allah. "Behind every paragraph the reader ought to be able to hear the music of the present joy and future grief." This masterfully crafted story resonated with me symphonically long after the last page was turned.

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