The Schooldays of Jesus
By J.M. Coetzee
Harvill Secker

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a literary prize in want of a winner must usually nominate J.M. Coetzee. A Nobel laureate and the first novelist to win two Man Booker prizes, he has been longlisted again for his 13th novel, The Schooldays of Jesus. The title is a provocation, although slightly less so when one realises it is a sequel to The Childhood of Jesus. What next? The Postgraduate Research of Jesus? The Unpaid Internships of Jesus?

Readers expecting a straightforward take on the story of Christ are in for a surprise. Clues to Coetzee’s destabilising method are contained in his epigraph from Don Quixote, “Algunos dicen: nunca segunda partes fueron buenas”, a near-proverb that roughly means, “Some say: sequels never work out well.”

Book review: The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

There’s a lot of cheek here, and not only because Coetzee doesn’t offer a translation. Cervantes originally inserted the phrase into the second part of his comic masterpiece. Coetzee himself may be alluding archly to the bafflement that greeted the first instalment of his.

In that book, a man named Simón “adopts” a five-year-old boy, Davíd, while both are sailing from an unspecified, but possibly South American, location. They land in Novilla, a socialist paradise that, as frequently happens with socialist paradises, turns rotten. Simón works as a stevedore, has an affair with Elena, and meets Inés, whom he decides is Davíd’s mother. Putting flesh on these bones are hints that Davíd possesses special powers (one of which is to read Don Quixote), and arcane debates about numerology and philosophy.

For a story that vacillates between narrative torpor and dramatic mania (cresting in the frenzied Dmitri), it’s oddly readable.

The Childhood of Jesus has been frequently described as an allegory, but it doesn’t hang together tightly enough for that. Instead, Christ’s life provides faint terrain for Coetzee’s culturally and historically vague un-nuclear family. Think The Life of Brian drained of its jokes. Or Gabriel Garcia Marquez minus the magic.

Those hoping for an uptempo follow-up – Simón battling Davíd with a lightsabre before declaring, “I am your father” – will be disappointed. Having fled Novilla after Davíd commits a fairly minor infraction (truancy), the trio arrive in Estrella. The name hints at stars, a theme the story eventually expands in occasionally mind-boggling fashion: Davíd enrols at a dance academy where the choreographical approach is drawn from mystical astrology.

That is to come. In the beginning, they are hitchhiking with a man called Juan (the Baptist?), who advises them to seek work at a nearby farm. “If it isn’t orange season it is apple season; if it isn’t apple season it is grape season,” he adds, sounding like an agriculturally literal Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.”

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Similar Biblical echoes, of both word and narrative, haunt Coetzee’s prose. Most obviously, Simón, Davíd and Inés map the human holy trinity of Joseph, Jesus and Mary, not excluding the vexed question of parentage. There is also a census, nods to carpentry, a lamb, fables and the growing sense that young Davíd is exceptional in ways that impress, confound and inspire devotion. He’s not a naughty boy; he might be the messiah.

While the mystery surrounding the often petulant Davíd is most likely to capture one’s imagination, Coetzee clings more closely to the kindly but perpetually bewildered Simón. The novel ambles, or possibly shambles, along in his image as he struggles to make sense of the world around him. “Which kind of person do you want to be,” he asks Davíd. “The kind who gives or the kind who takes? Which is better?” “The kind who takes,” Davíd replies to his flustered guardian: “Really? Do you really believe so? Is it not better to give than to take?”

This meandering progress might be Coetzee reproducing Cervantes’ picaresque, a loose and baggy collec­tion of adventures, drawn from “low-life”, and fusing realism, comedy and morality. It’s a mode that collides with something more like the existential novel with the arrival of Dmitri, a coarse security guard whose job at Estrella’s museum facilitates his obsession with Señora Ana Magdalena Arroyo, Davíd’s statuesque dance teacher at the academy nearby.

Buttonholing the hapless Simón, Dmitri pontificates on the subject of “passion” that Coetzee began in The Childhood of Jesus. In short: are humans ruled by strong emotions or are they in control of them? While Simón is the poster child for almost comatose self-control, Dmitri is so in thrall to Ana Magdalena he murders her. This central tragedy doesn’t pro­voke tears (both perpetrator and victim aren’t three dimen­sional enough for that), only further dialogue: about indivi­dual responsibility, sanity, justice, redemption and mercy.

I’m not sure what to make of The Schooldays of Jesus. For a story that vacillates between narrative torpor and dramatic mania (cresting in the frenzied Dmitri), it’s oddly readable. Coetzee’s prose, which pulses with an incantatory rhythm, casts a strange spell over the intellect. Occasionally, I felt I was reading a lost classic in English translation, and not only because Coetzee works within the high-minded tradition of Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist. This suspicion did raise questions. Why are phrases sometimes in Spanish (Academia de la Danza) and elsewhere in English? Why do characters, supposedly speaking in Spanish, actually speak in Spanish: “But regarding your system, el sistema Arroyo,” Simón says at one point.

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I found it hard to grasp the novel’s point – not necessarily a bad thing, of course. Is Coetzee pondering death or his own translation from South Africa to Australia? Are the extended theses on numerology, cosmology, choreography (not to mention education) satires on belief systems? Could the expansive and deliberately uncertain universe of fiction be Coetzee’s riposte to the jumbled thinking of his own pompous philosophers?

As Simón puts it when considering how best to guide Davíd: “Are the needs of a child’s soul better served by [my] dry little homilies than by the fantastic fare offered at the academy?” In resisting narrow didacticism and embracing different orders of truth, the novel can do both.

This is no guarantee of success. While Coetzee’s new book exercises the mind, his characters don’t exactly pop off the page, the cardboardy Inés above all. Then again, if it’s finely drawn characters and crystal-clear storytelling you’re after, Coetzee probably isn’t your man.

Read by all means, just not while operating machinery.