Sunday, January 13, 2008

Readings: Bad Year...Good Book

I’ve been having remarkably good luck finding books that are worth reading of late. Among these is the latest novel by Nobel laureate, J .M. Coetzee, entitled Diary of a Bad Year. I’m about 2/3 of the way through the book at this point, and enjoying it immensely.

Without going into too much detail here, I should say something about the unique format of the text itself. The novel is based on the idea that an eminent South African novelist, known only as “C.”, currently residing in Australia (all characteristics of Coetzee himself) has been commissioned by a German publisher to contribute to a book which will collect opinions concerning the contemporary world, composed by several prestigious writers. Because he is infatuated by her physical appearance, C. hires a youngish, sexy, woman (age 29), who lives on an upper floor in his apartment building (he lives on the ground floor), to type his manuscript. He simply wants her presence in his apartment, where he lives alone.

The format of the novel is unique. On the top of each page, we get a portion of one of the opinions C. has written for inclusion in the book. Then, somewhere down the page, under a dividing line, we get a piece of the narrative which drives the action of the novel, in the form of C.’s thoughts about the woman, Anya, and her place in his life. Once she is hired, we also start seeing her thoughts, below his, again under a dividing line. At some point, we start seeing conversations between the two, as remembered by C. or by Anya. Once C. has learned that Anya lives with a man named Alan, a Yuppie investment broker, we begin to see the interaction between Alan and Anya on the lower part of the page, below the C. section. (No pun intended.)

Usually the opinions that C. has written extend over several pages, while the thoughts of C. or Anya, or the interactions between C. and Anya, or between Anya and Alan, are contained on one page, or one page and the page that faces it. This means the reader has to decide in what order he will read the various sections of the text. He also has to decide whether Coetzee intends the reader to find any correlation between the opinions C. is composing and the narrative plot of the novel.

The plot comes to center on the attraction of C. for Anya; on Anya’s self-consciously sexy, T&A-oriented, flirtation with C.; and on Alan’s developing plot to use Anya to embezzle C.’s three million dollar fortune, using spyware that he has implanted in C.’s computer on a diskette containing Anya’s transcriptions of C.’s work.

Whew! That’s more summary than I had intended to write. What I had intended was to share some excerpts clipped from C.’s opinions, all of which are interesting, as well as entertaining. Here, for instance, is one that relates well to my own constant refrains concerning dualism and cognitive dissonance:

On talkback radio ordinary members of the public have been calling in to say that, while they concede that torture is in general a bad thing, it may nonetheless sometimes be necessary. Some even advance the proposition that we may have to do evil for the sake of a greater good. In general they are scornful of absolutist opponents of torture: such people, they say, do not have their feet on the ground, do not live in the real world. (Diary of a Bad Year, p.17)

As it is in the United States, so it is in Australia, apparently. Next we can observe that Machiavelli would have made a jim-dandy neocon:

Machiavelli says that if as a ruler you accept that your every action must pass moral scrutiny, you will without fail be defeated by an opponent who submits to no such moral test. … Necessity…is Machiavelli’s guiding principle. (Ibid., p.18)

Here is where C.’s opinion dovetails with what I have posted in the past in the category of “cognitive dissonance”:

Thus is inaugurated the dualism of modern political culture, which simultaneously upholds absolute and relative standards of value. The modern state appeals to morality, to religion, and to natural law as the ideological foundation of its existence. At the same time it is prepared to infringe any or all of these in the interest of self-preservation. …The kind of person who calls talkback radio and justifies the use of torture in the interrogation of prisoners holds the double standard in his mind in exactly [this] way: without in the least denying the absolute claims of the Christian ethic (love they neighbor as thyself)… (Ibid. p.18)

This has gotten long enough. In the days ahead, I may post a few more such excerpts, as I am finding them well worth sharing.