Diary of a Bad Year, by JM Coetzee

Beyond the prophet motive

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

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?