Diary of a Bad Year
by J.M. Coetzee
Viking, 231 pp., $24.95
Some writers begin by lulling their readers, some by shocking them. J.M. Coetzee begins by starting an argument. The narrator of Diary of a Bad Year, of whom we as yet know nothing, is speaking of the nature of the state. Hobbes is the first name to occur. Why are we starting with Hobbes, not with Aristotle? Because, says the constant reader, we are in the territory of Coetzee, the balladeer of the limp and the harelip; the lives of his characters are miserable, brutish, but not short enough, being frequently prolonged beyond any use their owners have for them.
Turn the page.
What the Hobbesian myth of origins does not mention is that the handover of power to the state is irreversible….
We are born subject…. One mark of this subjection is the certificate of birth.
With this certificate the state gives you an identity, and you carry with you a notice of this identity, “or you do without an identity and condemn yourself to living outside the state like an animal (animals do not have identity papers).”
Any reader who has kept a dog with a pedigree longer than his own may be provoked to smile. Less frivolously, we might wonder if the status of inhabitants really changes when the state assumes a recording function. Think of it historically: in England, for instance, government instructions to record baptisms, burials, and marriages were first sent out in 1538. Before this year, people were subjects. After this year, they were subjects. Neither before nor after were they animals. Is not the voice on the page a touch flamboyant, dramatic, overstating his case in a way perhaps allowable in someone who has lived under a tyranny? Who is speaking anyway? Will he show us his papers, or will we ramble for hours in the easygoing terrain of the modern novel, hoping to bump into him and fit a face and a name to the words?
But we cannot concentrate on the argument. Our attention is being pulled away. The page we are reading is divided in two, and below the line another story is sharing the space, another tone of voice, as quiet and private and close to the reader’s ear as the first voice is distanced, amplified, and public:
My first glimpse of her was in the laundry room. It was mid-morning on a quiet spring day and I was sitting, watching the washing go around, when this quite startling young woman walked in. Startling because the last thing I was expecting was such an apparition; also because the tomato-red shift she wore was so startling in its brevity.
The second voice hardly commands instant sympathy. It sounds like that of an affected lecher: “startling brevity,” indeed. But on the second page a picture is evoked, to add to the voice:
The spectacle of me may have given her a start too: a crumpled old fellow in a corner who at first glance might have been a tramp …