Of graceful retreat

JM Coetzee’s latest protagonist is none other than JM Coetzee, in a disguise constructed to fool no one. But Coetzee is far too clever to become his own hero—the simulation serves complex functions, not all of which are yet apparent. He uses an artifice that serves his purpose better than if he simply delivered his opinions about the world as it was and as it has become.
Coetzee is able to present his truths as fictions, but these are ideas that have more resonance than straightforward declaration and it is the danger of the declaration, so easily deconstructed, that he circumvents.

Coetzee’s previous literary incarnations have been less obvious, but now we have a view of his world and we see him ruminate about the disappearance of the world he inhabited, slipping away from history as his own life slips away in old age. It is a book of great pathos, where we see a great writer acknowledging his limits, admitting a dissatisfaction with his own ouevre and indeed with his own personality and constitution.

Diary of a Bad Year (Harvill Secker) is one more example of a long line of experiments in novel writing, if indeed the book can be called a novel. Divided into three, every page presents a discourse on the state of the world, but also two narratives that together constitute a novella, a story about an ageing writer’s infatuation with a young beauty in an Australian city. The ostensible writer of the opinions, a writer of South African origin now living in Australia, who admits late in the book to being the author of Waiting for the Barbarians, is named JC, and referred to as Juan by Alan, the typist’s lover.

The novella, juicy as it is in itself, is structurally related to the discourse in a complex manner, frequently as a counterpoint to the discourse, unravelling the opinions, deconstructing them and rendering them mere opinion. Often it presents a lesson in how not to interpret the aphorisms. The novella also reveals how the lowly typist affects the opinions of the writer. Coetzee introduces the novella with JC’s first encounter with the typist. Even though she is not a professional transcriber, JC hires her because he feels not so much a desire for the typist, but a desire for desire, a feeling at one remove from desire itself.

Without spoiling the story for the reader, suffice to say that the drama is provided by a triangular love story, full of deception and subterfuge, culminating in a confrontation between Alan and JC.

The discourse is Coetzee in reflective mode, anticipating death, and the brevity of the aphorisms, as one of them alludes, is a symptom of approaching end. JC proposes ideas for novels, knowing that he (Coetzee?) will not complete them. He reflects on his life’s work, lamenting that he has not achieved the greatness of the Russian masters, producing instead an oevre that is “cold” rather than celebratory of life.

Coetzee’s lament is not simply a yearning for a world gone by, but a suspicion that the ideals of his former self have been vanquished by a crueller logic, a crueller form of human being; that those of us who yearned for a world free of certain evils, and to whom it once seemed possible that this world could very well come into being, are now faced with the possibility that they are freaks of evolution. The argument that the past was better cannot be won, but, says JC, at least it can be bravely put.

Coetzee’s approach is of a thinker reflecting on an evolutionary scale, with human social relations themselves a factor in the survival of types of human being.

The discourse begins with a reflection on the state, its hold on us, and points to the failings of this form of social life, its ubiquitous presence, its origins and development, its rule over us, its violations and totalitarian orbit. Much of the state’s failures are because of the nature of our species, but also because of the nature of the career politician, who must dispense with all moral idealism if he is to arrive at that pinnacle from which it is possible to effect changes to an immoral order. Yet Coetzee also weaves into his work the theme of the withering of the state in the age of globalisation and Alan, a defender of the state, at one point characterises the current period as a war of all against all, precisely the condition that Hobbes argues is the function of the state to eradicate.

Coetzee reviews his relation to the dominant “post” movements of the age, of which he has been an exponent and a groundbreaker. He has the nerve to confess that he yearns for the greatness that has been dissimulated by this body of criticism, where greatness is a mere bag of tricks. The opinions you type might not come from my inmost depths, JC tells the typist, and—in a nod to the critics of authenticity—adds that when one speaks or writes one can never say what one really wants to say. When Alan repeats the postmodern mantra that there are no big issues in the advanced societies, Coetzee discerns big issues which are not simply matters of perception, as Alan would proffer. The refugee camps in Australia point to the new big issues, as do Guantánamo Bay, Tony Blair and questions about forgiveness, photography and a host of other ideas. And some of the old big issues still figure as important, like intelligent design, nihilism and Dostoyevsky.

Among many references to South Africa, another big issue emerges: Coetzee laments the fact that the new age of George W Bush transposes the apartheid mode of rule to a global level, the naked use of state power deployed to crush any opposition that calls for a kinder mode of social organisation.

Alan’s monologue in the second part of the book, the climax of the novella, is a sustained judgement of JC the man, the writer and the idealist. It is the voice of the new age and its picture of relics like JC, stripping him of his dignity, presenting his idealism as nothing but a sublimated megalomania, a less honest comportment than that of the brash go-getter of the New Barbarism, who makes even the yuppie appear a kindly precursor.

Perhaps Coetzee’s revenge on this monstrosity is that Alan will never sustain his stance without alienating the feminine of the species, and might also be doomed to extinction. It is one of the few flashes of hope interspersed in the book, an inkling that there might yet be, if not a triumph, then a resurgence of a countervailing force, a force antithetical to the New Barbarism.

Some would say that Coetzee is an old-fashioned Europhile, that his preference for Romantic music is a sign of a yearning for a past that will never return, that he is unable to live in the postmodern world which has not so much dissolved the distinction between high and low culture as destroyed high culture tout court. It is possible they are correct. It is possible that individuals such as Coetzee, or JC, or Juan (Johan?), who are aware, as JC says, of the insufficiency of a being that knows its insufficiency, are an aberration of evolution and that future generations will be a species different from the idealistic humanists who waged their last battle last century, and lost. Survival of the dimmest?

It remains to be asked: Why does Coetzee not present a book of aphorisms as his own opinions, in his own name? Perhaps because, as he says in relation to paedophilia, there are some phenomena that cannot, in the current age, even be raised, let alone discussed; and Coetzee is able to speak through JC more eloquently and freely than he is as himself.

The book is wide ranging and deep, in an age when depth is passé. There is a sense in which the only fitting review of Coetzee’s book would be an exact reproduction of the book itself, like Jorge Luis Borges’s Don Quixote. The reader of this “review” is exhorted to read the original.

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