It's a solemn piece of work. The themes running through are two-fold - the loneliness of old age, where you are losing the faculties of your body even as your mind is as sharp as it probably ever was; and the assault of a neo-conservative world where greed and a paranoid nationalism are negating everything a liberal would hold as good and true.
The format of Diary of a Bad Year is new and somewhat interesting. There are three threads running in parallel. The first is a book within a book. Mr. C is the old writer, reasonably well-known and successful, suffering from some form of Parkinson's. He is writing a series of essays contributing for a German book entitled Strong Opinions. This series of essays forms the first thread - and it makes for a very interesting read. Stretching from Mr. C's (and does it stand for Coetzee himself?) opinions on the war on terror, the nature of democracy and the West's capitulation to the Bush doctrine to music, Russian literature, travel and the English language, this thread manifests one part of the internal landscape of Mr. C - well-read, scholarly, intelligent. It portrays a strong belief that there are things going wrong with the world crafted by Bush's America.
The second thread is the second part of that internal landscape - Mr. C's fascination for Anya, a pretty young woman who lives with her banker boyfriend in the same apartment block. The fascination that is soon turning into something more, is that of an old man who looks at the beauty of youth with a longing that is at once fierce and unattainable. He befriends her and gets her to type out his manuscript for him. This second thread of the novel begins to unravel the beauty and the pathos of a relationship that cannot truly be defined by the normal world and its vocabulary.
The third thread is Anya herself - her thoughts on Mr. C, her boyfriend Allen and his callous scheme to exploit her growing friendship between her and the writer. Anya is a bit of a puzzle. We start by seeing her as a bit of a bimbette, with an unsophisticated mind, using her sexuality to draw Mr. C to her. Soon, she grows a bit more complex, just as her relationship with Mr. C grows complex.
As the three threads run parallel, we see the story develop - and the essays change as the relationships deepen. From a serious vein, Mr. C begins to lighten up - possibly the effect of Anya herself. And as the wickedness of Alan becomes more apparent, Anya is forced to come to terms with the nature of her relationships and her own sense of morality.
It is an interesting read. The essays in themselves are a book and can be read as one. To me, they proved the most absorbing part. Anya and Allen and Mr. C remain just that bit removed from the reader - maybe the format could not allow for more.
But Coetzee can be counted on to never be uninteresting.