“THE WORST of their deeds we will never know; that we must be prepared to accept, to know the worst, we will have to extrapolate and use the imagination. The worst is likely be whatever we think them capable of (capable of ordering, capable of turning a blind eye to); and what they are capable of is, all too plainly, anything,” writes Mister C about those in power, with distinct contempt.
The ageing acclaimed author is drafting his “Strong Opinions” for a German publisher in his sour Australian solitude, which suddenly gets disturbed by the 29 year-old Anya, a Philippine-Australian woman. So much so that the “metaphysical ache” that crept over Mister C, the 70-plus South African novelist, made him hire her as a typist.
Yet, she becomes much more: a distinct voice, the challenging voice of J. M. Coetzee’s book “Diary of a Bad Year”.
“What is disturbing about the metaphor of relations between human beings and viruses as a chess game is that the virus always plays with the white pieces and human beings with the black. The virus makes its move and we react,” Mister C requires Anya to type.
Anya tells him she does not like to read what he writes; she does not like to hear all about Bush and Rumsfeld and Guantanamo, the decaying morals of societies, the consuming loss of values and the irreparable harm done to human perception and dignity.
“I try to tell him to give it up; people have had it up to here with politics. There is no shortage of other things to write about,” tells Anya at the bottom of a page, as the author has divided the pages into three parts.
In the first part the “strong opinions” come, Mister C’s essays on terrorism, the slaughter of animals, the curse, music, tourism or English usage. Then he reserves the middle for the inner voice of Mister C while the third part is the space for Anya and her conversations with her boyfriend Alan who is an investment consultant, representing most of the things Mister C opposes.
Mister C indeed finds an opponent in Alan who dismisses the writer’s strong opinions as impotent leftist musings over things that are long gone and for Alan the writer is more like someone who is “seventy-two and is losing fine muscle control and presumably pees in his pants”. So much so, that he gets ready for an act which finally forces Anya out from his life.
And this is, indeed, how Mister C and his “Strong Opinions” impact indirectly on lives.
“You are wasting your pity on fundamentalists Mister C, they despise your pity. They aren’t like you. They don’t believe in reasoning. They do not want to be clever. They despise being clever. They prefer to be stupid, deliberately stupid,” Anya would argue with Mister C.
Just as they enter the reader who then easily learns to navigate the three levels of the novel. And while readers can follow the dispute or the clash of opinions between Alan and Mister C, they might find it quite rewarding to be placed in the middle of this battleground of thoughts and opinions, left and right, seeking shadows of grey while seeing the story of Anya and Alan and Mister C unfolding by the turning of each page.
While the book by the Nobel Prize winning author is unlikely to consume the reader with as much force as his other acclaimed books such as Waiting for the Barbarians or Disgrace, this is an intriguing read which sums up some of the views of Coetzee himself, which he could have easily published as essays even outside of the novel.