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Review: Diary of a Bad Year

Updated: Apr 15, 2022

JM Coetzee

Australian-based, 2003 Literature Nobel Prize winner, JM Coetzee's 19th book takes another jab at the 'genius novelist' canon. Digging deeper than all the accolades, he presents us with an uncertain philosophy. Sadly falling into the cliche of old white male writers who focus not on their acclaimed status, but on the one thing they really yearn for - sex with young women, the book becomes all the more enticing.

Predictably, Diary of a Bad Year is semi-autobiographical. Coetzee has often fictionalized his experiences as a writer, academic, and former South African resident. Here his gloomy, childless, self-critical and lonely self seeps through the fiction. The main character is not JM Coetzee but Señor C, a white 72-year-old South African writer living in Australia, which of course sounds all too familiar.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part consists of a series of essays written by the main character from a collection and is called Strong Opinions. The twist is that the writer introduces a character, a typist he hires partly because of his health and partly due to his loneliness. Initially, she is merely there to help him document his ideas. As the relationship develops, so does her influence on the book. Eventually, the new narrative takes over, and the conflicting perspectives drive the murky account.

As aforementioned, there are the signature traits that Coetzee fans know and love. The essential themes conveyed in Slow Man and Disgrace remain. The writer’s pessimism made beautiful by his candor and that unsettling sincerity produce a chilling read. This book is different from Coetzee’s previous offerings in that it is also quite funny. It is a new trick for the writer, so it is anomalous. It was not the writer's best work, but there is something ceaselessly satisfying in comedic tragedy.

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