Home Page African-Writing Online
HomeAbout UsNewsinterviewsProfiles of South African Women WritersFictionPoetryTributesArtReviews

  Alex Smith
  Amanze Akpuda
  Amatoritsero Ede
  Amitabh Mitra
  Ando Yeva
  Andrew Martin
  Aryan Kaganof

  Ben Williams
  Bongani Madondo
  Chielozona Eze
  Chris Mann
  Chukwu Eke
  Chuma Nwokolo
  Colleen Higgs
  Colleen C. Cousins
  Don Mattera
  Elizabeth Pienaar
  Elleke Boehmer
  Emilia Ilieva
  Fred Khumalo
  Janice Golding
  Lauri Kubuitsile
  Lebogang Mashile
  Manu Herbstein
  Mark Espin
  Molara Wood
  Napo Masheane
  Nduka Otiono
  Nnorom Azuonye
  Ola Awonubi
  Petina Gappah
  Sam Duerden
  Sky Omoniyi
  Toni Kan
  Uzor M. Uzoatu
  Valerie Tagwira
  Vamba Sherif
  Wumi Raji
  Zukiswa Wanner

   Ntone Edjabe
   Rudolf Okonkwo
   Tolu Ogunlesi
   Yomi Ola
   Molara Wood

August Debut

Issue 2; October/November


diary of a bad year



Diary of a Bad Year

Author: J.M.Coetzee
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007
Length: 304 pages
ISBN: 184655120X (Hardback)
Publisher: Vintage

 Is Coetzee Dead?

Is Mr Coetzee dead? His wispy spectre calling back to us from the afterlife, from the decaying mass of his own body? Or did he, perhaps, never exist? He certainly spoke at York University in the UK last year, definitely announced his Australian citizenship not long after, and this year he published a new book (Diary of a Bad Year) that followed a third collection of literary essays (Inner Workings). The fictional diary’s author – an eminent seventy-two year old South African-born writer living in Australia and variously notated as ‘JC’, ‘SeÒor C’, ‘Juan’ – is decaying (he has Parkinson’s) just like the rest of us (who may not notice it yet), so ‘Why should not our every utterance come accompanied by a reminder that before too long we will have to say goodbye to this world?’ Some writers write – as others read – to affirm their own existence. But JC writes to confirm his own decay, and those who read Coetzee do so to have their opinions confirmed or reversed: this is the challenge of the fictional diary, undertaken as a contribution to a book of ‘strong opinions’ that a German publisher has asked JC to contribute to. Diary of a Bad Year continues the Coetzeean desolation of destroyed opinions as it filters JC’s through their diary-for-publication form; the reader’s liberal democratic or anti-totalitarian or culturally relativist consensus; his secretary Anya’s innocent commentary; and the jealous scheming of the Monster of the book and its century, Neoliberal Alan (Anya’s lover, boyfriend).

That the opinions are destined for Germany is important. Germany is Old Europe, along with France the geostrategically (if not geopolitically) moral rearguard action against the Anglo-Saxon new world order of neoliberal democracy. The world order, if there can be said to be order, is one in which politics has finally been subsumed by – abandoned to – economics. In the beginning – our beginning, the book’s beginning – there was the state, unto which we were born, with assumed voluntary consent. ‘We are born subject,’ JC writes in the first of his opinions (‘On the origins of the state’) and ‘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.’ Though spoken in the present tense, that is the past, the previous state of affairs. Today it is different; ‘The market is where we are, where we find ourselves…[B]orn into a world we have no hand in choosing.’ The market, too, has little concern for whether we live or die – in the infinite tense, the infinite sense, where the first syllable extends across our pondering act of being or ending, over time. Because the market too records simply whether the worker – it may call its subject a citizen, perhaps even a ‘global citizen’ (that is, a freely movable commodity), but it means worker, or input – the market too records alive or dead: you cannot draw ‘dead’ out, it sounds absurd, it does not die, it is dead. (Of course, the market does note if we live on a dollar a day or less. Which is to say, by the usefulness of our input to the system, whether we are alive or dead).

Unfortunately Old Europe itself is one of these dead, despite its fans. This, JC’s diary, is a love letter to Old Europe: ‘there are some of us around to whom the inner life of nineteenth-century man is not quite dead, not yet’. This is a love letter to Old Music, in which ‘Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Mahler, Elgar, Sibelius composed within the bounds of symphonic form a music of heroic rebirth and/or transfiguration’. And it is especially a love letter to J.S.Bach, to Tolstoy, to Dostoevsky. To, ultimately, Russia – or should we say Old Russia or, simply, Russian literature? Why? Because Mother Russia, ‘setting before us with such indisputable certainty the standard toward which any serious novelist must toil’ shows that despite all the zeroes and ones, the deterministic lie of a neoliberal theology based on chance and probability, it is still possible for The Brothers Karamazov’s Ivan to ‘make me cry in spite of myself’. ‘Far more powerful than the substance of his argument, which is not strong’ is the rhetoric: and this power comes even though we know the lie. Readers know the diary is not Coetzee’s but still it is hard to resist finding his opinions in it; he is a fine writer.

So what of the new world? A century of genocide over which one might say the following quandary has presided: ‘Moral theory has never quite known what to do with numbers. Is killing two people worse than killing one person, for example?’ The problem is that in the 1980s and 1990s ‘not-very-bright graduates of the academy of the humanities in its postmodernist phase’ learned that ‘suspiciousness is the chief virtue’ and that ‘the ability to argue that nothing is as it seems to be might get you places’. Hence neoliberalism, where despite what you see (widening gap between rich and poor, entrenched poverty, ideological warfare and an unsustainably estranging elite class) things are getting better (for you do not see the reality, merely your own perception): Africa is not ‘underdeveloped’ as Fanon could simply write in its bare factuality. No, it is ‘developing’. Global warming is not bad at all: in fact, warmer climates will be better for everyone (which countries are poor because they are too temperate, too cold?) So while moral theory did not know what to do with numbers, postmodern neoliberals knew what to do with moral theory: amputate it, curtail it, until it could be counted and equated and sold.

Postmodern and neoliberal should not go together. The former should be emancipating, and this is why the world is in a state; that is, confusion. For, taught that nothing existed except as we constructed it, we thought it did not matter what we constructed, that we were free (licensed). On the contrary, it matters a great deal. The freedom offered by postmodernism was the chance to reconstruct: rebirth, renaissance. But the 1980s, the 1990s, never did that. It took society apart – Margaret Thatcher’s ‘there is no society’ – and thought that that was it: the apogee of humanity, job done, labour (not) working.

For the artist, this conflation of individual freedom (as his progressive, creative domain from which he could resist) with economic individualism (as reactionary, conservative) has been troubling. The romantic freedom of the individual artist was never meant to enter the ‘economic dimension’. Individualism was not supposed to be string theory. But: it suited people that it should be, and so it was only a matter of time. ‘The datum has to start its life in the individual dimension,’ Alan argues, ‘before it can migrate to the economic.’ In the end, ‘the economic not only sums up the individual, it transcends it.’ Cut up, divided, repackaged, sold, profited from and exploited, for the good of all men: this was done to society, culture, science, medicine, mortgages. In a recent New Yorker article profiling the chief opponent of President Putin, the former chess champion Garry Kasparov, David Remnick writes that ‘In the modern world, the political use of the tax police or a single, well-publicised incident of mysterious brutality is far more effective than mass repression and the Gulag.’ The resistance: cut up, divided, crushed. The struggle, the neoliberals say, Alan says, is that of the jungle: ‘a struggle of all against all’. The suspicion is against those who claim a bond of resistance: gatherings of so many people in certain places (US campuses, Parliament Square in London) shall be banned, outlawed. Torture shall bring out the truth from the individual against his fellow individuals: with whom you have no bond. The group struggle, the social struggle, is a myth: you have no group, you have no society. (‘What a realization for someone to come to who was born in Africa, where the mass is the norm and the solitary the aberration!’) To paraphrase Conrad, and to memorialise neoliberalism’s victory, ‘we struggle as we dream – alone’.

So why does this matter to the writer? Why is it troubling? After all, in his popular image the writer has always struggled alone. What is new or strange or startling to her? And, Alan asks, ‘If he really believes in these human rights, why isn’t he out in the real world fighting for them?’ Of Harold Pinter’s ‘savage attack on Tony Blair for his part in the war in Iraq,’ JC writes ‘there come times when the outrage and the shame are so great that all calculation, all prudence, is overwhelmed and one must act, that is to say, speak’. It is the praxis of reflection and action, the writer’s thoughts turned into words to articulate common individuality; that is, the points at which individuals meet and say Yes, we stand together. You are wrong. Your wars are wrong. We say this as individuals together.

For Paulo Freire, the 1970s radical Brazilian educator, ‘There is not a true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world’. But ‘to substitute monologue, slogans, and communiquÈs for dialogue is to attempt to liberate the oppressed with the instruments of domestication’. Thus again, no politician need worry about the white band and ‘Making Poverty History’ transforming anything so radical as the world order: rather, they neatly domesticate poverty into a comforting activism (that is, action without reflection) for the guilty classes. To Make Poverty History is nothing – history is as ‘we’ (our lords) write it. To Make the Future Fair, Equitable, and Free from Misery, Oppression and Poverty is the true challenge, is something else: to imagine it, to design it, to create it. To know and to make known that the most powerful force is not ethics or politics but the rhetoric that announces these things. To know and to make known that with this knowledge comes great freedom but also the greatest responsibility: freedom not as licence (freedom to behave as one wishes) but as liberty (the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved). This is the role of the writer whose opinions may well be ‘subject to fluctuations of mood’, who, like the rest of humanity, ‘doodles on the walls of his cave’.

There may be no ‘systematic, supra-political discourse’, as JC puts it, nothing outside of the cave. The notion filters through the pages (twenty-four) and the page (three horizontal sections) into Anya’s layer: ‘Politics is all around us, it’s like the air, it’s like pollution. You can’t fight pollution. Best to ignore it, or just get used to it, adapt.’ Which is what makes the exposÈ all the more urgent and is why the book is not about opinions, but about the power that normalises those opinions, so that they are all around us, the air we breathe.

In this polluted air, the writer must – or can – no longer be a transcendent individual (individualism is no longer romantic). On the other hand she must no longer simply be a mouthpiece for a group-derived orthodoxy (for identity politics or unreflective oppositionalism, the only thing David Lurie in Disgrace could see coming as, like JC, he witnessed his old world of nineteenth-century man’s inner life falling apart). She must become the common individual, into whom multiple individualities can stand together again. But more than that, she must die and become a ghost. She must be dead in (to) the neoliberal system by positing a moral theory and being a literary authority that cannot be economised, that decays, that is radioactive, that cannot be measured and fixed and simply sold. She must haunt the system’s feigned certainty. She must bring the reader – attempting to identify her and price her – into her world and spin him in the gyre until that reader and the reader’s opinions and the reader’s reception of the author’s opinions and the book’s opinions fall apart, so that they cannot be repackaged and ‘sub-primed’ (made fraudulent for private gain).

As with all his best work this is what Coetzee does with Diary of a Bad Year, filtering the opinions through the caricatures (they are more this than fully developed characters) of the writer, the neoliberal, and the secretary (they all have opinions, but of course the reader falls most for the writer’s); and through the physical and visual filtering device of the horizontally-divided page. As with Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man before this, he also uses the decay of the body and of old age to metaphorise this collapse of certainty, to reintroduce probability, and to memorialise an older time (that is, to memorialise the contest that preceded the present state, unto which we have been mythologically, unquestioningly born). JC thinks about the magpie in the public garden by his apartment: ‘public, private, it is no more than a puff of air to him. “It’s a free world,” he says.’ Ken Loach’s recent film of the same name for British television showed what a privately free world means; that it is quite different to a publicly free world.

One day we will hear from Coetzee from the afterlife (something he explores again here in Diary of a Bad Year – ‘will those of us who spent our last day in pain and terror and loneliness without the luxury of loving or being loved face eternal solitude?’ – as he did in Elizabeth Costello). Although ghosts are already present – and indeed, JC talked through Coetzee in York as he orated extracts of the diary in its earlier form – they are of course indeterminate. ‘Tread carefully, I said. You may be seeing less of my inmost depths than you believe.’ Which is the rejoinder to the new world order: tread recklessly, you are seeing – in the marketplace – all that you need to believe.

Sam Duerden
Sam Duerden currently lives and works in Sierra Leone, implementing
literacy, rights and development projects with a local NGO. Prior to this he campaigned on Darfur from London, where
he also had short stories and essays published. After studying
English at university he worked as a Website Developer in Oxford.

Copyright © Fonthouse Ltd & respective copyright owners. Enquiries to permissions@african-writing.com.