The Schooldays of Jesus review: the meaning of life
Possibly post-apocalyptic narrative preoccupied with impromptu and relentless philosophical discourse
JM Coetzee: The biggest issue facing the reader is what is going on, while Coetzee’s main problem could prove ensuring the reader even cares. Weekend Review books September 2016. JM Coetzee. Harvill Secker publicity shot by Bert Nienhaus.
The Schooldays of Jesus
The story so far: when last seen in the closing pages of The Childhood of Jesus (2013), JM Coetzee’s unlikely family, consisting of a grim couple who don’t know each other, one of whom is mother to a child she was given when the boy was five – or rather, that is the age anonymous officials gave him on arrival in the nameless country in which they all now live – was fleeing the school authorities in Novilla as well as an impending census, (shades of Herod there). The trio appeared bound for Estrellita and a new life.
Yet no, “life” is too large a concept in a possibly post-apocalyptic narrative preoccupied with impromptu and relentless philosophical discourse. The couple, Simón the protector, and Ines, a random woman playing tennis when selected to mother the child called David – who never stops asking questions and informing strangers that Simón and Ines are not his parents – are seeking a suitable school for him.
Think flight into Egypt and then think again. The point of this novel – should there be a point – appears to be making the reader pause, deliberate, consider and then gather clues as to Coetzee’s ascetic intentions. The Childhood of Jesus is a deadpan, eccentric work, a quasi-fable executed with the regulation absurdity common to the milder of nightmares. It is undercut by a saving tone of laconic exasperation which kept me laughing throughout.
A similar crazy humour just about sustains The Schooldays of Jesus, an anarchic free-for-all of Platonic ideas which appear to be exploring human behaviour and the very nature of being.
The biggest issue facing the reader is what is going on, while Coetzee’s main problem could prove ensuring the reader even cares, although the South African-born 2003 Nobel laureate for literature, who became an Australian citizen in 2006, may not be overly bothered about readers at what is a late-middle, to early-late stage in a glorious career. In a hall-of-distorted-mirrors sequel, which does not exactly arrive shrouded with anticipation, Estrellita has become Estrella. Whatever about the different spelling, the new place is little more than a sprawling, provincial town.
Anyone interesting in tackling The Schooldays of Jesus should first read the previous book or indeed, re-read it. Not because it will help make sense of this chill, rigidly cerebral new novel, which has been long-listed for the Man Booker prize, but it does at least contextualise Coetzee’s methodology, and the stilted, robotic, semi-self-parodic idiom used throughout. It will also explain why Simón – who has been a self-appointed guardian of sorts to the boy since arrival in the strange new world where Spanish is the spoken language, there is no history and no one has a past – concedes defeat as early as page 40.
When new acquaintances, unaware of what transpired in the earlier book, ask why he won’t allow David to become a lifesaver, Simón defensively replies: “I am not opposed to his being a lifesaver. I am not opposed to any of his plans or dreams. As far as I am concerned – his mother may feel differently – he can be a lifesaver or a fireman or a singer or the man in the moon, as he chooses. I do not direct his life, I no longer even pretend to advise him. The truth is, he has tired us out with his wilfulness, his mother and me. He is like a bulldozer. He has flattened us. We have been flattened. We have no more resistance.”
Readers may sympathise. The child is a spoilt pest but as he is only six years old, Simón’s long overdue outburst is laughable in a novel which the publisher’s blurb claims is grappling with “what it means to be a parent” among other things. Simón demonstrates surreal levels of patience in the earlier novel – it seems as if by serving the child, he may be atoning for some crime he once committed. Is his patience rooted in self-justification? Yet such speculation could be due to the levels of authorial manipulation which Coetzee, shaped by Kafka and Beckett, is exploiting.
Always an eloquent, provocative writer and often daring as in Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), and Life & Times of Michael K (1983), the first of his two Booker winners, he is uncompromising. These two Jesus books are self-conscious exercises in which Coetzee displays, and exposes, his art at its most wilful. Possibly the most important quality, which has always defined his work, is its subtle rage, fiercely evident in the wonderful Age of Iron (1990) and Disgrace (1999), his second Booker winner. That trademark, campaigning anger also drives both of these offbeat Jesus books, particularly this wordy sequel with its nod to Dostoyevsky’s notion of guilt as filtered through the romantic and remorseless murderer Dmitri, an old-school style hysteric who affords Coetzee some clumsy comedic flourishes.
The boy David, who repeatedly rejects his name, appears to represent a form of anarchy. His stock response is that he will run away. Yet he is not the central figure, for all the talk about him and most of the dialogue is concerned with discussion of his talents, his needs and his lack of discipline, the main character is dour, unhappy, determined, sexually-frustrated and increasingly tragic Simón.
The theme of displacement is further consolidated in this sequel and Simón, bested by a child – and clearly no match for the teenager who may be lurking should Coetzee be intending to continue this wayward saga – has somehow acquired a more convincing humanity.
He does begin to emerge as a Coetzee figure, although the novelist’s move from South Africa to Australia in 2002 at the age of 62 could not have been that bewildering or, then again, perhaps it was – which does begin to partly unravel the prevailing ambivalence of The Schooldays of Jesus. This perplexing narrative is far more concerned with the education of the middle-aged Simón struggling to master his new existence, than it is with a demanding young boy who is, most clearly, not Jesus.
David develops into no more than a shrill, unfunny fall guy for Simón. Ultimately, the story, such as it is, becomes Simón’s odyssey. The boy forces Simón to announce that “staying alive is more important than anything else”. On cue, the boy persists and quizzes him about the importance of staying alive. Despite the emotional sterility it is difficult not to experience a growing empathy with Simón: “He is about to answer, about to produce the correct, patient, educative words, when something wells up inside him. Anger? No. Irritation? No: more than that. Despair? Perhaps: despair in one of its more forms Why? Because he would like to believe he is guiding the child through the maze of the moral life when, correctly, patiently, he answers his unceasing Why questions. But where is there any evidence that the child absorbs his guidance or even hears what he says?”
Dance emerges as one of the motifs, possibly symbolic of freedom, and David does love to perform. Yet the steps that are the most profound are faltering ones taken by aging, vulnerable, all too human Simón. Coetzee has always been concerned with the difficulty of trying to live and this preoccupation defines even a novel as perversely abstract as the testing narrative he has devised here.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent