The Schooldays of Jesus by JM Coetzee

JM Coetzee is my favourite living author. I need to say this at the outset to offer some context to the battle I fought with The Schooldays of Jesus, his 13th novel. I spent three happy years writing my PhD on Coetzee, and my love for his early work survived meeting the man in person (like a wet weekend in Grimsby) and a run of several baffling “novels” (since his Man Booker-winning Disgrace in 1999) which seemed bent on stripping away all of the satisfactions we look for in fiction.

The Schooldays of Jesus follows on the heels of its predecessor, The Childhood of Jesus. In that novel, we met Davíd and Simón, arriving memory-less in a Spanish-speaking city named Novilla. Novilla was a vast refugee camp operated on the most enlightened and benevolent lines – people were fed, housed and found employment; children were educated (although Davíd fought all attempts to make him conform). With a subtle touch, Coetzee conveyed how sinister the passionless world of Novilla was, where humans were treated as objects to be measured, ordered and controlled. As Simón put it: “You know how the system works. The names we use are the names we were given there, but we might just as well have been given numbers. Numbers, names – they are equally arbitrary, equally unimportant.”

Eventually, Simón, Davíd and Davíd’s mother, Inés, fled Novilla, heading for a town called Estrella. It is here that we pick up the story in the second novel in the series, with Simón and Inés arguing over how best to educate the six-year-old Davíd. Finally, after the intercession of three wealthy sisters, Davíd is sent to the local Academy of Dance, run by a Juan Sebastián Arroyo and his elegant wife, Ana Magdalena (many of the names in the book are obscurely significant). The education at the Academy is unusual – students learn maths by “dancing down” numbers – and yet Davíd, who’s a precocious and exasperating child, appears to flourish, forming a particularly close bond with Ana Magdalena.

Estrella is as blandly well-meaning as Novilla before it. The front page of the town’s newspaper features “an elderly couple with a gigantic cucurbit from their garden. It weighs fourteen kilograms, says the report, breaking the previous record by almost a kilogram. On page two a crime report lists the theft of a lawnmower from a shed (unlocked) and vandalism at a public toilet (a washbasin smashed)”. Against this banal backdrop, a real crime takes place. Dmitri, a creepy guard at the town’s museum, murders Ana Magdalena. It is Davíd who finds the body.

If The Childhood of Jesus was about Davíd leading Simón to a point where he could no longer endure the smothering goodwill of the state, this novel finds Simón questioning the extent to which his own internal landscape has been resculpted by the stultifying amiability of his adopted land. He attends Dmitri’s trial, where the judges do everything they can to mitigate the offence, leaving the murderer raving in the dock, assuring them of his genuine ill will. In Dmitri, Simón finds a model for real feeling. When the judges ask for a recess in order for the suspect to cool down, Simón has the first of a series of revelations. “Allow our passions to cool, he thinks: what passion do I feel except a passion of irritation?”

The Schooldays of Jesus is delivered in language stripped of all ornament and affect. There are few metaphors, little description, nothing lovely to snag the mind as we move forward through the story. There is, though, the regular clang of cliche: Simón knows the city “like the back of his hand”; the news of Dmitri’s relationship with Ana Magdalena “will spread like wildfire”; the three sisters greet Simón “stony-faced”. The prose, as we have come to expect from Coetzee, is not the point. And yet when Simón starts to attend a writing class, it is the austerity of his own language that brings home to him how devoid of real feeling his life has become. “Dmitri has on several occasions ridiculed the way I speak, which strikes him as overly cool and rational,” he writes. “Dmitri believes that the style reveals the man… he would call me a passionless man.” In the light of this new self-knowledge, he resolves to change. “I want to become a different person.”

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