Jesus isn’t God, Jesus is Godot. In the world of Samuel Beckett’s play the titular Godot is the expected absentee. In 2013, J. M. Coetzee—who has frequently written on the heels of Beckett—published a novel called The Childhood of Jesus, where Jesus, both as an exalted religious figure and as a fictional character of that name, is neither present nor expected; instead, Jesus remains a symbolically charged absence. Rather than centering on the salad days of the Son of God and his parents Mary and Joseph, Coetzee’s narrative tells the story of three pedestrian figures bearing the names of David, Inés, and Simón.
The Childhood of Jesus follows the young six-year-old David and the older man, Simón, as they arrive in the somewhat bland city of Novilla. They arrived after a long boat-trip across an unnamed ocean, during which their memories have been washed away; as if they had been dipped into the forgetful waters of Lethe, they (like everyone else in Novilla) remember nothing of their former lives. Presumably David and Simón are in no way related, but as Simón begins to care for the boy and take him under his wing, they decide to undertake a search for the boy’s mother, who, Simón is convinced, must live in Novilla and whom he’ll immediately recognize should he lay eyes on her. And so he does, choosing (or being chosen by) a young, tepid woman named Inés. (“Inés! So that is the name! And in the name the essence!”) They settle in together and raise the boy as their child, to often bizarre and often highly amusing effects.
Knowing the backstory of this impromptu family may allow readers to fully appreciate Coetzee’s subsequent and latest novel, The Schooldays of Jesus, but it is hardly necessary and, rather, adds to a reader’s appreciation of the text, as The Schooldays of Jesus can be read both in dialogue with Coetzee’s earlier book and with a larger artistic tradition extending back to the work of Kafka and Dostoyevsky, and the music and life of Johann Sebastian Bach.
The novel begins conventionally enough, with another arrival, this time with the entrance of the makeshift family into the town of Estrella. But things are a little off, and this town may prove to be just as unusual as Novilla was; both are semi-agricultural settlings in a mock-Spanish world, where Spanish seems to be a translated language (or this novel a translated book). Estrella, it seems, isn’t what they had expected. Upon arrival, Simón looks around the landscape and describes it as “no more than a sprawling provincial town.” Why had they hoped for a city? Attentive readers may remember that when they departed Novilla at the end of the first book, their destination was called Estrellita, the customary Spanish diminutive suffix highlighting its smallness. Has this city shrunk in size to be “no more than a sprawling provincial town,” even as its name has metaphorically inflated during their journey to Estrella, a word meaning a full-blown star? Curiouser and curiouser. Other little things have changed as well: in the first novel the boy was called David—here his name is Davíd. Perhaps he has, as little boys do, grown up and earned a proper diacritic just like his guardians Simón and Inés.
At the end of The Childhood of Jesus the three had gone on the run because they risked legal trouble over what was interpreted as David’s misbehavior at school. The last line of the first novel is: “That’s all. Looking for somewhere to stay, to start a new life.” In their new destination the family tries to make do by working on a fruit farm: “Farmers always need farmhands,” they’re told. As in the first Jesus novel, Simón initially labors with diligence, then drifts away from work to a life of insipid boredom, while he and Inés slowly drift apart. All the while, a string of events is unfolding that involve the boy in increasingly strange ways as well, events as strange as the town of Estrella and, indeed, the novel itself.
As in the former book, the narrative’s perspective is usually perched right atop Simón’s shoulder, making him the reader’s (perhaps only) confidant in this strange new world. “Will a new life be possible in Estrella?” he wonders at the novel’s outset, and he’s repeatedly surprised at the unusual customs and characters he encounters in the town, as he was in Novilla before. But despite Estrella’s strangeness and despite Simón’s hope for novelty, the promise of a new life is crushed relatively early on, as the narrative seems somehow fated to play out similarly to The Childhood of Jesus. By framing these novels as elements within a series, Coetzee seems implicitly to comment on the tug of fate, how even a forgotten memory might still unwittingly steer the life of the one who has done the forgetting—what if the things that seem due to destiny or chance are, in reality, merely the veiled choices of a Nietzschean or Freudian compulsion toward endless repetition?
Even though the characters now have memories—specifically, of their lives in Novilla—they seem unaffected by the fact that the events unfolding in Estrella are nearly identical to their days in Novilla. The second story echoes the first: The boy is enrolled at a school, even though the boy’s actions in Novilla’s schools were what caused him to reject the idea of having to be schooled at all. In the new surroundings of Estrella they try a new approach: sending the boy to a private school. There are only two private schools in town, “the Academy of Singing and the Academy of Dancing”. With the help of some generous benefactors—three quite Beckettian (or Chekhovian) sisters—the boy is enrolled at the Academy of Dancing.
The Academy is led by “a pale young woman,” the “strikingly beautiful” Ana Magdalena Arroyo, a dancer who has taken to educating the young; and by her husband, Juan Sebastián Arroyo, a maestro at the piano, “a master, a true master. There is no other word for it.” Juan Sebastián composes, yet he also accompanies the children’s dancing. That a composer with Bach’s name (arroyo is Spanish for Bach, which is German for stream) might also be an accompanist to little boys may not seem strange if one remembers that Bach himself was not considered the classic that he is today during his lifetime and that he was a working musician as the Thomaskantor in Leipzig. We are told of Juan Sebastián: “It is an honor for us to have him among us in Estrella, which has never been a great city, teaching our children the art of dance.”
The art of dance that the Arroyos are teaching the children turns out to be much more than a simple left-right-bend-and-turn, and proves to aspire to near-metaphysical mastery of another sort. The dance that Davíd learns involves numbers, and in the dance that Ana Magdalena teaches she is teaching the children the numbers, because, as Davíd tells Simón, “the numbers are in the sky. That is where they live, with the stars. You have to call them before they will come down.” “Most mysterious,” says Simón. “An academy of dance where you learn how to call down the numbers from the stars!” This is hardly the only exchange or scenario in The School Days of Jesus to arouse bafflement.
With Kafkan matter-of-factness Coetzee narrates this story about the boy’s engagement with what seems like a version of Dalcroze’s eurhythmics, the method that teaches musical concepts through movement; and, in part, the novel becomes an ethical and pedagogical exploration of acceptable and beneficial forms of education, challenging all the norms that a reader might consider so. According to Ana Magdalena, the Academy of Dancing “is dedicated to guiding the souls of our students toward [the realm of numbers], to bringing them in accord with the great underlying movement of the universe, or, as we prefer to say, the dance of the universe.”
Ever since his first novel, Dusklands (1974), Coetzee has baffled readers with worlds of fiction whose complexities achieve the complexities and inconsistencies of our historical moment. Coetzee has never been a realist, but he has been realistic about the great darkness in which we seem fated to live our lives, the large black holes of our consciousnesses remaining forever obscure to us, the choices and events we undergo remaining riddles we take into the afterlife or into nothingness. In fictions that seem perpetually to eschew the simple solution to a question, the clear-cut answer to a moral quandary, the unambiguous interpretation of an event, Coetzee’s exquisite work has created worlds as deep and dark as Kafka’s. With a track record that includes a few of the greatest and most profound works of the late twentieth century—Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), Life & Times of Michael K (1983), Disgrace (1999)—Coetzee at 77 still knows how to make it new, how to keep pushing at the limits of what one thought the novel was able to do.
Coetzee may have become most visible on the international stage by winning the Nobel Prize in 2003, but it was in the 1970s and 1980s that he gained acclaim in South Africa, his native country, for his decidedly modernist sensibility, a sharp contrast to the more traditionally realist world of letters in South Africa. (Perhaps Coetzee should be called late modernist, or be filed in the neighboring ledger, postmodernist, but the point still stands.) In The Schooldays of Jesus Coetzee takes his (late or post-) modernist sensibilities further into the experimental, even if his experimentation is perhaps less related to the destructive radicalism of the avant-garde and more to the diligent testing of characters through events, as Émile Zola argued. Coetzee certainly isn’t a naturalist (as Zola was), and he doesn’t believe in bringing out a character’s essences through testing (Coetzee would be hard-pressed to affirm that characters, or people, have “essences”)—but testing he does, as his characters have often undergone a regimen of frightful trials that echo the chokehold-plots of Thomas Hardy.
In The Childhood of Jesus this form of testing involves trying Simón’s patience and rationality with the “Arroyo’s philosophy of dance,” what Simón will later call the “mumbo-jumbo about the stars.” By bringing the reader close to Simón’s consciousness, readers are given permission to see the outlandish Arroyo-method as a form of claptrap cult-belief, which might quickly be discounted on grounds of rationality, even common sense. But the novel occasionally fans Simón’s haze of doubt to permit him a view he had been deprived even in the preceding novel, where he was also yearning for a life of passion, a life not lived in the mind alone. Simón is told: “Behind music there is always dance. If we listen with attention, if we give ourselves to the music, the soul will begin to dance within us. That is one of the cornerstones of señor Arroyo’s philosophy.” And as Simón listens in the halls of the Academy to señor Arroyo as he is composing a piece of music in his chamber, something gives way: “He gives himself to the music, allowing it to enter and wash through him. And the music, as if aware of what is up, loses its stop–start character, begins to flow. At the very rim of consciousness the soul, which is indeed like a little bird, emerges and shakes its wings and begins its dance.”
In passages such as this one can savor Coetzee’s often overlooked lyricism and the clarity of his diction and rhythm to achieve a “late style,” a style which—as he notes in a letter to Paul Auster published in the correspondence volume Here and Now (2013)— “starts with an ideal of a simple, subdued, unornamented language and a concentration on questions of real import, even questions of life and death.” The strangeness of the fictional worlds in both Jesus novels stands in sharp contrast to the “subdued, unornamented language” he uses to map them out, and the effect on the reader of these enigmatic books is precisely one of incredulousness in the face of the deeply metaphysical reflections and frequently bizarre events narrated in a style of pithy terseness. This combination gives these books an almost epigrammatic quality. If Heraclitus or Aesop had written novels, they might have looked something like this.
The metaphysical tale that Coetzee spins around the spinning children as they dance down the stars from the sky, it ultimately tightens around the clash between the ordered tidiness of the mind and the untamed demands of the body, and Simón’s repeated laments about his impoverished soul are accelerated through one of the most extraordinary characters in Coetzee: Dmitri. Dmitri with his ursine body and Grinch smile works as a museum janitor in the same building where the Academy is located. Like the petty criminal señor Dagga in The Childhood of Jesus, Dmitri is a captivating older friend to young Davíd, and Simón fears that the boy may be corrupted by Dmitri’s unfettered character. (Alternatively, his resistance to Dmitri may simply be jealousy, a fear that the boy may be slipping away from him to another, more magnetic father figure—even if Simón is perhaps too rational yet to contemplate this in any serious way.) But, as one finds out, Simón’s fears are not entirely unfounded, when the novel takes a sharp turn characteristic of Coetzee’s sly use of misdirection in plotting. In a labyrinthine hiding place in the Academy, which is reminiscent of the somnambulant corridors of emptiness in Kafka, or the labyrinthine secret space that a group of boys frequents in Robert Musil’s The Confusions of Young Törless, the body of Ana Magdalena Arroyo is found, having been strangled by Dimitri.
What follows is a forensic foray into the relationship between Dmitri and Ana Magdalena, which turns out to have been a relationship of passion and perhaps even love. Coetzee has always been a master of drawing evil (or possibly evil) characters as peculiarly charismatic, most notably Colonel Joll in Waiting for the Barbarians, and the shady Dmitri (not only because of his Slavic name) seems to have made his crossing over the ocean into Estrella directly from Dostoevsky country.
This isn’t the first time Coetzee has left his footsteps in the dirty snow of Dostoevsky country, having written the extraordinary novel The Master of Petersburg in 1994, chronicling a fictionalized Dostoevsky’s return from exile to Petersburg to claim the body of his dead stepson, Pavel, who had, before his death, drifted into the revolutionary circles in the city. In that novel, too, Coetzee charts the teasing pull of charismatic evil, the magnetic draw of anarchy and revolution, though in Dmitri he may have achieved one of his finest, most astutely wrought characters, passionate, mesmerizing, and dangerously seductive, as when he explains to poor old reasoned Simón: “When it comes to life’s great choices, I follow my heart. Why? Because the heart is always right and the head is always wrong.”
This is a dangerous tightrope for a novel to walk, not only because it might make the reader an accomplice in Dmitri’s beliefs and actions, but by the larger possibility of arraigning its own nature, its own genre. If Coetzee’s skills are so perfectly honed that he can make his readers care for a person like Dmitri, a self-confessed murderer, then the novel, as an artistic creation, can enact an effect very similar to music, washing through its listeners: the effect of making its readers give themselves over to the text. Coetzee lays bare the almost dictatorial quality art can hold when it seems to bypass the cortex and aim straight for the heart. This is a conundrum Thomas Mann examined in his Doctor Faustus and in the pathological music-genius Adrian Leverkühn; it is also a problem Plato foresaw when he outlawed the imitative, corrupting poets and flautists from his Republic. (What irony, then, that poor Socrates was served the shot of hemlock for being accused of corrupting the young, too as if Socrates had been an artist before he was a philosopher.)
The stakes are indeed high for Coetzee. In these later books he engages in fresh new ways with his lifelong interest in the history and tradition of the novel. His various rewritings of canonical texts confirm, above all, his fascination with the storehouse of stories. But he is not content simply to re-interrogate these topics; he raises the stakes to address philosophical questions concerning the responsibility and the recklessness of art, questions as old as philosophy, questions as old as art. These are, in Coetzee’s late style, “questions of real import,” and asking them in as clear and dramatic a way as he does here makes this incredible, exquisitely excellent novel a late flowering in a novelist’s career that includes no withered weeds.
Jan Wilm is a translator, literary critic, and lecturer in English literature at Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany. His book The Slow Philosophy of J. M. Coetzee was published by Bloomsbury in 2016.