Dec/Jan 2008

Señor Year

Coetzee's protagonist writes barbed, provocative essays about power

Siddhartha Deb


In 2002, J. M. Coetzee moved from South Africa to Australia, exchanging one white colony for another, leaving behind the fractious, brutal, and failed project of apartheid for citizenship in a democratic state far more successful at dispossessing its indigenous people. Coetzee has lived in places other than South Africa before, notably England and the United States, but the latest break with his home country seems permanent. There is something irrevocable in the act of changing citizenship; in this case, the transfer of allegiance was carried out by a writer whose fiction had been molded in the workshop of South African politics.

Although Coetzee's novels have never been bound entirely by the geography of the present and have sometimes ranged into such speculative territories as the Saint Petersburg of Dostoyevsky, it is impossible to go through his oeuvre without seeing how his political education began with apartheid. This goes deeper than the interpretation that Coetzee's fiction, often faulted for being light on character and heavy on ideas, brought the West news of some marginal, aberrant society that was soon reduced to a footnote in the triumphal history of the twentieth century.

Apartheid may have been a fantastically grotesque system, but that did not mean—as Hannah Arendt noted in The Origins of Totalitarianism—it had no kinship with political structures elsewhere in the world. Coetzee, too, discovered in apartheid many of the central features of the modern state. In an essay written in the '80s on why he and his fellow South African writers were drawn to depictions of torture, he reminded the reader that Nathaniel Hawthorne had called prisons "the black flowers of civilized society," among the first things to bloom wherever a colony was founded.

In fiction, Coetzee's efforts to come to terms with apartheid resulted, early in his career, in the haunting allegory of Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), an exploration of the ways in which empires rise, consolidate, oppress, and fall. Written in a language that is both richly descriptive and strangely disembodied, reaching us, as it were, from the fragmentary archive of a lost civilization, the novel shows us how its well-meaning but weak protagonist is relieved of his control of a frontier town by the torturer Colonel Joll. The book that followed, Life & Times of Michael K (1983), is also about political power exercised without restraint, but the emphasis has passed from the torturer to the tortured. In Michael K, a solitary black man with a harelip, Coetzee imagined the extreme opposite of white violence, giving his nearly silent hero a remarkable capacity for resistance under impossible circumstances.

These are both among the great novels of our time. Even though they were written in response to a specific context, they touch so directly on our world that it is hard not to think of Guantánamo's shackled figures when reading about the incarcerated Michael K and hard to avoid seeing Blackwater mercenaries and CIA interrogators when encountering Colonel Joll (in dark glasses) explaining his method: "First I get lies, you see—this is what happens—first lies, then pressure, then more lies, then more pressure, then the break, then more pressure, then the truth."

The move to Australia, then, was only a respite for Coetzee. His adopted nation might not be quite as crude as apartheid South Africa in its ideas of power and governance, but it is implicated in other falsehoods, from its disingenuous treatment of its aboriginal people and its devotion to neoliberal dogma right down to its eagerness to sign on to the "coalition of the willing" led by Washington.

Coetzee's latest novel, Diary of a Bad Year, has much to say about the West and its shapeless war on terror, taking as its starting point the idea that the liberal democratic state, for all its valorization of representative politics, is as authoritarian a system as any:

If you take issue with democracy in times when everyone claims to be heart and soul a democrat, you run the risk of losing touch with reality. To regain touch, you must at every moment remind yourself of what it is like to come face to face with the state—the democratic state or any other—in the person of the state official. Then ask yourself: Who serves whom? Who is the servant, who the master?

Such ideas, however, do not come directly from the author, but from the novel's protagonist, a man who has a superficial resemblance to his creator in being a writer and an immigrant to Australia from South Africa and in sharing the same last initial.

There are other interesting aspects to Señor C the character, but before we come to them, we have to consider the ideas he puts forward. He is working on a series of essays for a German publisher, as one of six contributors to a volume called Strong Opinions. We don't have access to the other's contributions, only to Señor C's astringent commentary on the modern condition—especially the self-congratulatory politics of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia—and his arguments form the core of the novel. In part, he gives us a primer on the modern state that ranges from its Enlightenment origins to its present shape. He tells us that the Hobbesian compact, where people seemingly voluntarily handed over power to the state for their collective security and well-being, has turned out to be irreversible. We, the citizens, no longer have any power. We are loath to acknowledge this, and rejecting the options of craven servitude and outright revolt, most of us choose the third way of quietism, of what Señor C calls "inner emigration."

This provocation is only one of many offered by Señor C, from his speculation that some Americans shamed by their government may have contemplated the assassination of their leaders to a sketch for a ballet called Guantanamo, Guantanamo! that shows a man in a Donald Rumsfeld mask alternately writing and dancing "ecstatic little jigs" in a corner. Not all of this is equally convincing, but for the most part Diary of a Bad Year is an impressive reflection on our condition, giving articulate voice to the muted discontent and rage many people have felt in the past few years. Coetzee's learning is wide, and in his hands, this is a novel performing the kind of work intellectual disciplines like philosophy and political economy once did, before they chose their own inner emigration into the networked realm of high theory.

It would have been perfectly satisfying had Coetzee given us nothing more than this incendiary manual on politics, the state, and the contemporary situation. But away from the ideas and the polemics is Señor C the character, refracting the arguments he puts forward. And there is the novel as a whole, displaying the circumstances in which these essays are being written, offering an ongoing commentary that comes to us in parallel narratives.

At first, Señor C's story is no more than a footnote appearing below his essays and details his attraction to Anya, a neighbor met in the building's laundry room, whom he hires to type out his essays. But his story soon competes with the political analysis and develops two strands of its own, splitting each page into three sections. At the top is one of Señor C's "strong opinions"; in the middle Anya's observations and criticism of Señor C, his writing, and the complications in her relationship with her partner, Alan; and at the bottom Señor C's response to Anya and Alan.

The reader, therefore, has to decide which strand to follow at every turn of the page, but this approach is not distracting in the least. To a great extent, Anya and Alan are exemplars of all that Señor C is rebelling against in his essays. Alan, especially, the amoral and ruthless "investment consultant" who installs spyware on Señor C's computer to siphon out the writer's savings, is the inheritor of the political system Señor C finds fault with. It is for the likes of him, and with his active support, that the West has erected its modern structure in all its aspects, from unequal globalization to extraordinary rendition. He is the devil we all know.

But Alan, Anya, and Señor C are also peculiarly Coetzeeian creations, and Diary of a Bad Year is a novel following in the wake of other similar narrative challenges from the author. Not since Disgrace (1999), his farewell to South Africa, has he written a novel that offers the comforting illusion of realism. Ever since Elizabeth Costello (2003), a book that came out the year Coetzee received the Nobel Prize, he has been shifting the line between mimesis and meta­fiction, conducting games that reveal, if nothing else, how he sees the novel as a supple form, replete with possibilities.

Elizabeth Costello is structured through a series of lectures delivered by the eponymous protagonist, an Australian writer who is a fierce campaigner for animal rights. Art, politics, the sanctity of life, the aging human body—all these come together in that book, culminating in a brilliant final section that reworks the "Before the Law" episode in Kafka's The Trial. But what makes the novel particularly idiosyncratic is the fact that every one of Costello's lectures has actually been delivered by Coetzee. In his next novel, Slow Man (2005), Coetzee begins straightforwardly, writing about an elderly photographer injured in a traffic accident. But a third of the way through, a character called Elizabeth Costello shows up, claiming that the photographer is a character in a novel she is working on.

By the time we come to Diary of a Bad Year, then, it is possible to see that its formal play and many of its themes—the aging protagonist, the attraction to a younger woman, the presentiment of death, the physical and emotional isolation from the modern world—have been presented to us by Coetzee for a while now. This has not always been a successful approach—Slow Man, especially, is a slim novel weakened by its experimental diet—but no one can accuse Coetzee of being caught up in the trivial.

The books have all been short, the language deceptively simple, but Coetzee's recurrent themes have been no less than the vital signs of a culture, one possibly in its death throes. Diary of a Bad Year may be his most successful diagnosis yet of what we are suffering from, one that even offers hope in the form of resistance, critical thought, and the odd, imperfect humanity that emerges in the story of Anya and Señor C. In other writers, such hope would appear trite, but we know that Coetzee is no sentimentalist. His humanism has always been hard-won, wrested from those early lessons in authoritarianism and opposition, and this brilliant novel shows how much better prepared Coetzee is than many Western writers to come to terms with our new age.

Siddhartha Deb is most recently the author of the novel An Outline of the Republic (Ecco, 2005).

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