State of Discontent

J.M. Coetzee's anti-political fiction


Diary of a Bad Year, by J.M. Coetzee, New York: Viking, 231 pages, $24.95

The South African novelist John Michael Coetzee is celebrated for his uncompromisingly critical, ethically complex, and highly cerebral writings about the nature of power. His philosophically dense, ironic, and self-reflexive fiction has exhibited a consistent suspicion of political authority without being either didactic or propagandistic. Both his fiction and his nonfiction offer merciless portraits of the human devastation wrought by state power: South African apartheid, European imperialism, the U.S. war in Vietnam, the totalitarian violence of Nazism and communism. His newest novel, Diary of a Bad Year, contemplates—among many other things—a radical rejection of the state itself.

Coetzee's work mixes formal elements in ways that are often unsettling. He blends memoir with fiction, academic criticism with novelistic narration. When he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003, Coetzee delivered not a traditional lecture but a meditation ostensibly written by Robinson Crusoe about "his man," the novelist Daniel Defoe. In his 2003 novel Elizabeth Costello, Coetzee transformed a series of academic lectures he gave over several years into a full-fledged fiction about an aging female novelist who hails from Australia, whose career at times eerily resembles Coetzee's own, and whose life intersects with that of Coetzee's contemporaries. Were that not strange enough, this "novel" does not end with Elizabeth Costello's death, but follows her misadventures into an afterlife that she herself recognizes as a kind of cut-rate parody of Kafka's parable, "Before the Law."

Similarly, Diary of a Bad Year refuses to recognize the border that has traditionally separated political theory from fictional narrative. Indeed, Coetzee suggests that the politics of an oppressive state are only one dimension of a broader web of contention that encompasses the private struggles of his characters. In this complex work, his characters' lives are marred by the conflicts and limitations in which the state itself originates. The search for an apolitical existence free from the evils of state power inevitably comes face to face with the dangers and discomforts of a "natural" world where the clash of personal desires is unregulated by any independent governmental authority.

The book's narrative structure is formally innovative and technically ambitious. It is partly narrated by "Señor C" (a.k.a. "John," "Juan," and "J C"), a world-famous writer in his seventies suffering from Parkinson's disease, who has recently left his native South Africa to take up residence in Sydney, Australia. (Coetzee currently resides in Adelaide, Australia.) Señor C counts among his many internationally known works of fiction and nonfiction a novel, Waiting for the Barbarians (a book actually published under Coetzee's name in 1982), and a study of literary censorship that sounds suspiciously like Coetzee's own 1996 book Giving Offense.

Diary of a Bad Year features two diaries, each written by Señor C. The first and longer diary, commissioned by a German publisher, consists of a set of "Strong Opinions" on timely political and social subjects: "On the origin of the state," "On anarchism," "On Machiavelli," "On Al Qaida," "On Guantanamo Bay," and so on. The second diary consists of "gentler" opinions, not intended for publication: "On the erotic life," "On aging," "On compassion," "On the writing life," "On J. S. Bach." These are less obviously political and more personal in tone and subject.

To make matters more complicated, both diaries usually share the book's pages with other strands of narrative. Solid horizontal lines divide the pages into sections. A top section consists of Señor C's "strong" and "soft" opinions. A middle section includes his more intimate record of an ongoing (and "Platonic") relationship with Anya, a sexually alluring half-Filipina twenty-something whom C meets in the laundry room of his apartment building. Finally, a bottom section offers Anya's own narrative, in which she reflects on Señor C, who hires her to be the typist of his "Strong Opinions" manuscript (though he seems far more interested in the scantiness of her clothing than her lamentable typing skills). She also chronicles her turbulent ongoing relationship with her boyfriend, Alan, an unsavory 42-year-old investment counselor.

Coetzee adds yet one more narrative twist: C's voice often gives way to Anya's in the "middle" sections, while Anya's "bottom" sections are often colonized by Alan's voice. The result is an intricate interplay between Señor C's pronouncements on a wide rage of political, cultural, and highly personal subjects and the emotionally resonant story of the deeply fraught romantic triangle involving Señor C, Anya, and Alan.

This complex, fugal narrative is more than a mere exercise in technical virtuosity. Diary of a Bad Year poses serious and deeply troubling questions: "Why is it so hard to say anything about politics from outside politics? Why can there be no discourse about politics that is not itself political?" Señor C's struggle to describe a world free of state power is burdened by his realization that he lacks an adequate literary form to represent such a perfectly free existence. What, C might wonder, would the language of pure freedom, of undiluted individual autonomy sound like? What hitherto unknown literary genre or artistic form, uninflected by the sorry history of human government, might body forth such a world? It is as if we were to ask what tongue Adam spoke before the fall.

Although Alan (a not entirely convincing representative of amoral capitalism and belligerent "neo-liberalism") describes Señor C as a sentimental socialist, C characterizes his own brand of political thought as "pessimistic anarchistic quietism." He explains: "anarchism because experience tells me that what is wrong with politics is power itself; quietism because I have my doubts about the will to set about changing the world, a will infected with the drive to power; and pessimism because I am skeptical that, in a fundamental way, things can be changed."

In wide-ranging remarks that wrestle with the political thought of Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Etienne de la Boétie, the 16th-century philosopher of civil disobedience, Señor C finds it especially troubling that "the only 'we' we know—ourselves and the people close to us—are born into the state; and our forebears too were born into the state as far back as we can trace. The state is always there before we are." For Señor C, the state originates in a criminal conspiracy: gangs of armed men employ force to extort money and obedience from their "subjects."

C insists that the criminal activities of the state do not end with the act of its founding, but are always and everywhere present in the contemporary world. The aerial bombing of civilian populations, the detentions at Guantanamo Bay, the suspension of civil liberties and widespread increase of surveillance in the war on terror —all speak to the fact that the state establishes its absolute sovereignty through violence.

By such means the state continually demonstrates that there is no authority higher than itself, that it is the ultimate source of all law and justice, that it possesses the "right" to treat "outlaws"—that is, individuals who reject its legitimacy—with impunity. What particularly depresses Señor C is the universal powerlessness and (more worrisome still) unwillingness of individuals to throw off this criminal conspiracy that goes by the name of "the state."

For all the passion of his opinions, Señor C senses their ineffectuality. Merely to express his outrage in print will not bring about a fundamental change in contemporary political life. In fact, it might paradoxically suggest a willingness to play by the rules set down by the political status quo. Insofar as the system tolerates C's "strong opinions" (and even indirectly rewards him financially for giving them vent) it demonstrates that it can quite easily withstand the most vehement and radical jeremiads of its critics. C's meeting with Anya, and his willingness to let her read and comment on his "strong opinions," alerts him to the need to revise his opinions or offer an alternative set of reflections. The increasingly personal and intimate nature of his second, "gentle" diary, which Anya prefers to the first, marks C's decisive turn away from public to the private affairs, from an aggressively anti-political to a more evasive apolitical mode of being in the world.

One might understand C's second diary as an attempt to resist the power of the state by burrowing ever more deeply into the (ever shrinking and always imperiled) sphere of his private life. And just as C's second diary corrects his first, and thereby ideally serves to delimit the sphere of politics, the more intimate narrative streams carry Coetzee's reader that much farther away from the public realm the state claims as its own.

But if the novelistic world inhabited by C, Anya, and Alan provides a minimal and precarious refuge from the omnipotence of the state, it is not, at least as Coetzee portrays it, a utopian or prelapsarian realm. Indeed, they discover that their personal lives are blighted by the very ethical disagreements, primal struggles, and potentially dangerous forms of sexual and material competition that historically gave rise to the state itself (or, at any rate, provided a pretext for its establishment).

In an effort to steal C's financial assets, Alan has used the unwitting Anya to plant spyware on C's computer. He reads both of C's diaries in manuscript without his prior consent. Though Anya objects to and Alan abandons his scheme to defraud Señor C, he nonetheless humiliates the septuagenarian author, informing him in savage fashion that he is not only a hopeless political relic but also an over-the-hill Don Juan whose sexual interest in Anya will never be reciprocated. By the end of the novel, C is left to confront his loneliness, his inexorable physical decline, and his inevitable death with only his stories, memories, and fantasies of Anya as potential sources of solace.

In Coetzee's fiction, the story of domestic life can be nearly as cruel and merciless as the political world. But at least the misdeeds and missteps of private existence have the virtue of being freely chosen. For Coetzee's characters, the difference between involuntary subjection to the state and a freely chosen individual path, however harsh and barren, may be the only difference that matters.

Contributing Editor Michael Valdez Moses is associate professor of English at Duke, author of The Novel and the Globalization of Culture (Oxford University Press), and co-editor of Modernism and Colonialism: British and Irish Literature, 1899-1939 (Duke University Press).