THE HEART AND THE HEAD
Diary of a Bad Year
By J M Coetzee (Harvill Secker 231pp £16.99)
This is a grumpy old man's book. Specifically, it's a grumpy old lefty's book. The right wing will dismiss it as the paranoid ravings of a madman (as they dismiss Harold Pinter, quoted with approval here). But they will be wrong. First because history has a way of showing that the most shocking ideas were right after all; and secondly because Diary of a Bad Year is much more than just ideas.
The ideas belong to C, a distinguished South African writer living in Australia. He has been invited to contribute to a book called Strong Opinions, in which six eminent writers pronounce on what's wrong with today's world. Evidently C is a well-known and practised moaner; he accepts with alacrity, and lays about him with a will.
What is wrong with the world today, he argues, is its postmodern relativism, which he traces back to quantum mechanics and (a bit paranoid) 'literature classes in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s'. Nothing is solid any more, including the authority of the writer on the page. So naturally C presents his Strong Opinions in unrepentantly authoritative mode.
He is a theoretical, even philosophical thinker, producing essays on the origins of the state, on Machiavelli, on intelligent design, on probability. Many are demanding, apart from the jokes ('Can one imagine Jesus saying that he will probably come again?'); all are pessimistic. Even Hobbes is too upbeat for C. According to Hobbes, we gave up our freedom to the state voluntarily, in return for security: but what he did not mention, C says, is that this pact is irreversible, and that ever after 'we are born subject'. This is true even, or especially, in a democracy, which does not allow for politics outside the democratic process. 'In this sense,' C concludes, 'democracy is totalitarian.'
That is typical of his style. He is a writer, not a philosopher; he goes not for the careful but for the clean, bold line. As a result, you often want to dissent. Still, for sheer writing C is always worth reading. For example: 'Whether the citizen lives or dies is not a concern of the state. What matters to the state and its records is whether the citizen is alive or dead.' Or, hoping his mind will outlast his crumbling body: 'All old folk become Cartesians.'
It is when he moves from the general to the specific that his boldness becomes provocative. If you do not want (even in fiction) to hear Bush and Cheney reviled as torturers, and the government of Australia and our own Tony Blair as their abject monkeys; if you are not ready to consider aerial bombing as an act of terror; if you are not ready to imagine why someone might become a suicide bomber, or to wonder whether we haven't gone quite mad about paedophiles - well, read this book, and try.
And when you have, you will still only have scratched its surface. Because underneath C's Strong Opinions runs a story: an old man's love story. (This is a flowering genre these days: Roth's The Human Stain, Bellow's Ravelstein, O'Toole's Venus. I wonder why?) C's love is Anya, a golden-skinned young woman - she turns out to be half Filipina - with a perfect derrière. He soon persuades her to become his typist. She is young and ignorant (when he writes of popes and popery she types 'paper and papery'); she plays the little Filipina, and has a chip on her shoulder about her race and brains; but in fact she is bright and articulate, and has her own way with words (I'm his segretaria, she says, his secret aria). From the start C's obsession with her is less a physical than a metaphysical ache: 'something to do with age and regret', with the yearning for transcendence, with love. And slowly Anya herself moves from cock-tease and chippy critic to friend, protectress, and eventually the woman C has dreamed of, who will accompany him to the gates of death.
The love story thus belies C's pessimism. At the same time it takes us back to it, in the person of Anya's boyfriend Alan, who embodies the answer to C's question of what is wrong with today's world: he's a ruthless Thatcherite market man, for whom there is no such thing as society, but only the individual and economics. He promises Anya that he will not hurt C, but she doesn't believe him - rightly, as we soon discover. By the end she asks herself if an 'investment consultant' (his profession) is distinguishable from a swindler, or the modern managerial state from the bandit states with which C began his Strong Opinions. In this way too, therefore, the love story ultimately belies C's pessimism, since half the new young world ends up on his side.
That is the main paradox of Diary of a Bad Year: its heart contradicts its head, and in the heart's story the old ways win. But only in content; in form the opposite happens. For this passionately anti-postmodern book is itself as postmodern as can be. It has multiple voices - C the essayist, C the diarist, Anya and Alan (reported by Anya, but given whole paragraphs to himself). And each page gives us at least two of these voices, mostly three. Already we're in Alan's multiple universe; but there's more to come. At first each voice ends on the page, so you read downwards in the normal way, switching between speakers. But before long someone's section stops, unfinished, in mid-page, so you have to follow it horizontally on to the next one. Finally whole essays and conversations stretch from a third of one page to a third of the next, so that you end up reading through whole chapters horizontally - and reactionary old C (or Coetzee, see below) has subverted the experience of reading more radically than anyone since Laurence Sterne.
Then there is the self-reference game (Strong Opinions is both C's book and the Diary's first part), and the identity game between C and Coetzee. Coetzee, of course, is also an eminent, aging South African writer living in Australia; and many of C's strong opinions are famously Coetzee's - eg dissatisfaction with modern universities, or a passionate sympathy for the sufferings of animals. Convention requires, C says, 'that the writer's existential situation be bracketed off from what he writes. But why should we always bow to convention?' Why indeed? C's opinions are surely Coetzee's own. And when C fears that he was a selfish child and a cold man, that his art was unengaged and lacked love - surely these are Coetzee's fears as well. And there has often been something cold about his writing. But not here. When C reads the anguish of Ivan Karamazov, 'unable to bear the horrors of the world', he sobs uncontrollably. That is what is behind Coetzee's extreme ideas - his sympathy with animals, with suicide bombers, with paedophiles: anguish at the horrors of the world. Those not so afflicted, and gifted, instead of condemning him should pause in their getting and spending and, like Anya, admire.