Diary of a Bad Year
By Allen Barra

"Rhetoric is heard," Yeats said. "Poetry is overheard." The truth of that statement and the friction created by J.M. Coetzee's noble effort to bring politics and poetry to terms is at the heart of his latest novel, "Diary of a Bad Year."

Coetzee, a native South African who now lives in Australia, is one of the greatest living English-language novelists, and despite that Nobel Prize on his shelf, he can't be accused of complacency. "Diary of a Bad Year" is his most technically ambitious work, a three-tiered concoction that attempts to meld essay, fiction and confessional memoir. The main character is an aging writer named Coetzee who refers to a novel called "Waiting for the Barbarians," the book that brought international fame to the real Coetzee.

There is a plot, though it takes a while to kick in. The fictional Coetzee is asked to contribute some chapters on cultural and political subjects to a German publisher for a book titled "Strong Opinions" (a jibe, perhaps, at Nabokov, who used the same title for his collected interviews and loathed the use of political themes in fiction.)
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In the end, "Dairy of a Bad Year," for all its careful craft, draws us in just to put us off again. You can hear Coetzee's unmistakable voice, but this time around you may have trouble overhearing it.
Allen Barra is the author of several books, including "Clearing the Bases." He also writes about books for

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