Diary of a Bad Year, by JM Coetzee

Beyond the prophet motive
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The Independent Culture

When I took part in the Booker panel that, in 1999, made JM Coetzee the first novelist to win the prize twice, I never felt a second's doubt about the justice of our verdict. No novel of the past two decades merits a longer life or broader reach than Disgrace: his fearless, and cheerless, vision of breakdown and tentative renewal in the life of a man, of the fragile new South Africa and – as it steered into parable – of humanity itself. What plagued me, and seems to plague the author about his work, was the implicit aggression of our choice. Forget about fiction as a source of comfort, uplift or inspiration: here is truth that hurts but heals, sour as vinegar, bitter as quinine.

If Coetzee, who in 2003 added the Nobel to his double Booker, has taken to his role as a grimly oracular prophet for our times, he has also told many stories about the dangers of that stance. Few will love the messenger with dismal news about our selves and societies, especially when a sceptical reader can accuse such a writer – as one does in Diary of a Bad Year – of "a tone that really turns people off. A know-it-all tone. Everything is cut and dried".

His latest novel (and it is one, in spite of all its formal games) puts the angry sage under scrutiny as it marks the further progress of Coetzee's bracingly bold "late style". Just as Edward Said proposed in his book of that name, Coetzee seems to be detaching himself step by step in a long "crisis of farewell" from the conventions of his genre. As in Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man, he edges away from fully-embodied fiction into hybrid territory where essays, fables and aphorisms bed down in the frame of an invented yarn.

As Diary of a Bad Year puts it, in relation to the ageing Tolstoy and similar late-stylists, "the texture of their prose becomes thinner, their treatment of character and action more schematic". Yet this depletion can also bring about "a liberation, a clearing of the mind to take on more important tasks".

"JC", our dourly eminent narrator, is several years senior to Coetzee (born 1934, not 1940) and far more solitary. Yet he shares traits with the actual writer that stretch from schooling with the Marist Brothers in Cape Town to a recent migration from South Africa to Australia and even authorship of a novel called Waiting for the Barbarians. Older, lonelier and gloomier (so one hopes), JC perhaps fictionalises his creator on a bad day, or in a bad year – but note JC's warning that "You may be seeing less of my inmost depths than you believe".

Much of the book consists of JC's grumpily heretical essays and meditations. Ranging from the collective "disgrace" of torture at Guantánamo Bay to the "shame" of white South Africans after apartheid, from Tony Blair as "the sedulous monkey of masters in Washington" to the corrupting effects of technology in sport, they are supposedly written for a German anthology of "strong opinions" from leading authors. Even JC grasps the absurdity of the elderly doomsayer "consumed with grouchiness". These "thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season" (to quote Eliot's "Gerontion") never lose a vitalising bond with the perennially cross but confused literary lion alone in his sterile flat.

Meanwhile, in the basement, a kind of novel begins. In the basement, literally and typographically: for under each brief essay unfolds JC's story of how he came across an alluring and under-employed young Filipina Australian in the block's laundry room and persuaded her to type these pieces for him. Anya, this ad hoc secretary or "secret aria", gives her own account of events (or maybe JC's fantasy account?) as a subscript to his narrative. So each page comes split into three stacked levels, with the axioms at the top qualified in two voices by emotion, anecdote and intrigue. This hypertextual polyphony becomes a source of poignancy, even pleasure, as human factors messily revise all the dogmas booming out above.

Anya lives with the coarsely ambitious Alan, a self-made financial adviser. Their clashing responses to "Señor Juan" and his quixotic ideals – he resentful and contemptuous in Thatcherite style, she amused by an old man's pitiable lust but increasingly protective - open cracks in a doomed affair. A three-way, almost Strindberg-like, struggle for supremacy ensues. Anya grows in narrator and reader's eyes from a kept houri in a scarlet shift to the shrewdly sympathetic voice of a new world, less shamed and haunted by evil from the past.

Thanks to her presence, JC's "second diary" changes gear from snarling diatribes to subtler fragments of memories, dreams and reflections on art and nature. It even notices with relish the haughty "magpie-in-chief" in the garden. Anya really likes the bit about the magpie, and the reader is glad to share her opinions. Under her refreshing sway, JC almost lightens up - something his admirers often wish for Coetzee.

"To write a novel you have to be like Atlas," complains the weary JC, "holding up a whole world on your shoulders". At first, Diary of a Bad Year feels as if Coetzee has thrown off that weight in favour of a stately ramble through big ideas, pegged to proper fiction by the slenderest of threads. Yet the human drama does take hold. Those upheavals in the basement root principles in the chances and choices of a life. Coetzee aims not to ratify, or nullify, these "strong opinions", but to show (as he often does) that the power of thought entails thoughts of power.

Perhaps only Coetzee can and should get away with such a false-bottomed box of meta-fictional tricks, and even then not in perpetuity. JC himself closes with a tribute not to ironic abstraction but to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, twin masters of a fiction richly embedded in social and spiritual realities: "they clear one's eyesight; they fortify one's arm". Suitably fortified after a bad year, one might even shoulder the storytelling burden of Atlas again.

Harvill Secker £16.99 (231pp) £15.29 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897