By the way, no one in this novel is clearly named or called Jesus. Only the title teases that one of the characters is—perhaps—the historical Jesus. Perhaps post crucifixion, perhaps not? Perhaps this isn’t the historical Jesus at all—perhaps Coetzee is playing a game on us. Perhaps not. But the reader can’t help looking for parallels. —Jason DeYoung
The Schooldays of Jesus
J. M. Coetzee
272 pages; $27.00
“T his is how it is. There is no before. There is no history. The boat docks at the harbor and we climb down the gangplank and we are plunged into the here and now. Time begins. The clock starts running.” Ironically, this here and now is the afterlife.
Characters eking out lonely lives in an unrecognizable historical situation or in an altogether invented milieu are classic narrative approaches in J. M. Coetzee’s novels. But where The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus differ is that its characters have no past. They have come to this novel “world” washed clean of their former lives, without their memories, and given new names—given new ages! One might arrive a child, another a 41-year old male. They are set on their new paths with their new names to find new work or new caregivers. They are forced to learn to read and speak a new language, and given only the most modest of starts in a place called Novilla—a “no town,” where “things do not have their due weight.”
Perplexing and certainly stranger than Coetzee’s other works, these novels continue the departure from his more well known realistic fiction found in such novels as Disgrace or Age of Iron. Indeed, his new works are less concerned with standard storytelling altogether. As David Attwell describes in his critical biography J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing (2015), after Coetzee won the Nobel Prize in 2003, the “simple urge to represent” no longer seem to interest him, instead he is currently engaging in “secondary-order” questions such as, “What am I doing when I represent? What is the difference between living in the real world and living in a world of representations?”
These “secondary-order” questions have appeared as meta-fictional adventures in recent novels, such as Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man. But for the current set of novels, he has dropped the meta-fictions for something different, something more abstract and foreign. These characters are new: new to these pages, new to the world itself depicted within these pages, coming up against all this new world’s original customs and beliefs. Its literary touchstone is more Don Quixote and less Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John.
For all their newness, however, these novels are as narratively straightforward as they come, broken into regular chapters and standard scenes, written in Coetzee’s economical, direct prose.
In The Childhood of Jesus one of the first things that becomes apparent is that the majority of its characters are without desires or passions—they are on whole contended individuals. Hard manual labor is done without complaint or imagination, food is primarily bread and water, and sex isn’t a notable consideration because, as you see, it doesn’t “advance us,” as one character explains. Of this dry world it is said: “[I]t is so bloodless. Everyone I meet is so decent, so kindly, so well-intentioned. No one swears or gets angry. No one gets drunk. No one even raises his voice.”
This is Simón, the point-of-view character for both The Childhood of Jesus and its sequel The Schooldays of Jesus. Simón is literally fresh off the boat, arriving on the same ship as Davíd, a young boy whom he takes care of, yet Simón is not his father. While on board the ship, the boy had lost a letter that explained who he was and who his mother is. And one of the main plots of The Childhood of Jesus is a quest to find Davíd’s mother, which turns out to be a woman Simón just “thinks” or “believes” to be said mother. And Simón’s “feeling” feels as random as it sounds. The woman, Inés, eventually accepts that she is indeed the child’s mother despite having no recollection of the child. Remember each person arrives in this world “washed” clean of their previous life, without memories, without connections.
The setting for The Childhood of Jesus is a fictionalized town where everyone is expected to speak Spanish and where housing is provided for. There isn’t much pleasure outside of football, and Simón can’t even find spices at the grocery to make the food better. The novel itself is episodic but can be broken down into three broad movements: arrival, search for Davíd’s mother and her acceptance of that role, and finally setting up Davíd’s education. The Childhood of Jesus ends with the three characters on the run from the law, because Novilla’s officials want Davíd in a special school for children with mental deficits, either mental or emotional. Davíd is without a doubt a special child, yet he doesn’t have deficits. He is playful, willful, and hates authority.
By the way, no one in this novel is clearly named or called Jesus. Only the title teases that one of the characters is—perhaps—the historical Jesus. Perhaps post crucifixion, perhaps not? Perhaps this isn’t the historical Jesus at all—perhaps Coetzee is playing a game on us. Perhaps not. But the reader can’t help looking for parallels.
The Schooldays of Jesus takes on the same episodic structure as its prequel, and can seem scattered and unfocused at its outset. But at its core The Schooldays of Jesus is the examination and dramatization of concepts related to education. Its opening chapters establish that Simón is the primary agent of education for young Davíd. He is the one who explains and defines the child’s understanding of the world, but as the novel progresses, we see both characters attending school, and we hear Simón philosophizing on the educational values of confronting immoral men and, indeed, the final “showdown” is a debate between measurable science and artistic passion.
The novel opens as the three main characters arrive in Estrella (another city “which has no sensation, no feelings”), where they hope to lay low and avoid the Novilla authorities who might or might not be looking for Davíd. The three end up on a farm, where Simón and Inés pick grapes, while Davíd plays with the other children, slowly becoming the leader of the group. The “gypsy” life doesn’t suit Simón or Inés but it certainly suits Davíd, whom they’ve “never seen so active, so full of energy.” The owners of the farm take particular interest in Davíd and suggest to Simón and Inés that this highly intelligent and gifted child be sent to school. As it is explained, there are four choices in Estrella: public education, which Simón and Inés tried in Novilla to disastrous ends, or the Academies—singing, dancing, and Atom. Davíd chooses dance, despite having no interest in dancing whatsoever.
At the Academy of Dance, however, Davíd becomes awestruck by his teacher, Ana Magdalena Arroyo, who is an ethereal beauty, with the kind of splendor that “stands up to closest scrutiny”; Davíd also takes quickly to the school’s cockamamie philosophy of “dancing the numbers.” “Just as there are noble metals and slave metals, there are noble numbers and slave numbers,” Ana Magdalena explains. “You will learn to dance the noble numbers.”
This numerology, this cosmology is explained over and over in the novel without much success—both Simón and the reader are left flummoxed. “The numbers are in the sky. That is where they live, with the stars. You have to call them before they will come down,” we are told. But “you can’t call down One. One has to come by himself.” This mystical rubbish leads Simón to declare Ana Magdalena to be a preacher: “She and her husband have made up a religion and now they are hunting for converts.” To which Inés undercuts Simón’s assertions by saying that is how you “teach small children.” In her previous life in Novilla, Inés says she too taught small children. She gave each letter of the alphabet a personality, “making them come alive.” The novel is unremittingly dialectic.
The relationship between Inés and Simón is fraught, tenuous, and unsatisfying on both accounts. They are indeed on opposite poles. There isn’t a modicum of chemistry between the two. In fact, they seem repulsed the other. In the apartment they share, Simón feels more like a lodger than an equal member of the family. Simón at every turn pushes Davíd to accept Inés, but she is a “hard-hearted” and clumsy mother. When Davíd moves out to become a boarder at the Academy of Dance, Inés is quick to suggest Simón find a place of his own.
After a rather subtle introduction, a character named Dmitri begins to insert himself into the lives of the three characters. Dmitri is an attendant at the museum next door to the Academy of Dance, and he, in is own words, “worships” Ana Magdalena: “I am not ashamed to confess it.” Dmitri is a man of passion. The children love him; he often has a pocketful of sweets for them after school. Simón reflects on Dmitri thusly: “How wholehearted, how grand, how true Dmitri must appear to a boy of Davíd’s age, compared with a dry old stick like himself!” Indeed, Dmitri is set up as a counter beat to Simón’s pragmatism. Lovely Ana Magdalena, however, treats Dmitri coolly. And initially, Dmitri doesn’t seem all that important to the novel, but in a “crime of passion” he kills Ana Magdalena.
After the death of Ana Magdalena, the story turns to an examination of how we are to know someone else, how are we to know someone’s true identity. In regards to Dmitri, Simón repeatedly warns Davíd that he doesn’t know why Dmitri takes him into his “confidence”—a word that reappears frequently—because “you don’t know what is going on in his heart.” After Dmitri’s subsequent trial and conviction, Simón, Inés, and Davíd try to reassess and reassemble their lives. In the messy aftermath, Simón takes a writing class of all things. He reveals (with near-comic results) in business letters and résumé cover letters that he has come to a “crisis” in his life, and that meeting Dmitri (whom he dislikes and, from a moral point of view, despises) “has been an educational experience for me.” He continues, “I would go so far as to list it among my educational qualifications.” To be sure, these are the schooldays of Simón as well!
Critics haven’t praised these novels quite the way they have Coetzee’s previous work, calling them “dry as sawdust” and an “ascetic allegory.” I personally enjoy the direction these novels are taking: they’re attempting something different in a landscape glutted with novels and stories just trying to exist within an established tradition. They remind me of Coetzee’s early novels—In the Heart of the Country, Waiting for the Barbarians, and Life & Times of Michael K.—with their rather alien environment and imaginative leaps.
In something more traditional, Dmitri’s trial and conviction might have make for a proper ending, but here the narrative is pushed forward to complete the novel’s theme, and the ending is more cerebral, a showdown between a man of science and a man of art, vaguely concluded on purpose, perhaps in agreement with Camus, who wrote: “solely the balance between evidence and lyricism can allow us to achieve simultaneously emotion and lucidity.”
Richly enigmatic, The Schooldays of Jesus leaves off precisely where another volume might be necessary to give us our final answers. The two novels are so much about this shaky lad and dad relationship that you want to see how it comes out in the end.
Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, Madcap Review, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.