Strangeness is a difficult quality to represent in an age when it’s all around us, all the time: from a species of bees becoming endangered to thousands of Americans even considering voting for a certain businessman in the running for President, and celebrity breakups being bundled alongside proclamations of the world ending by climatologists in your Facebook feed.
It’s easy to forget that we’re living in some of the most disorienting years in any century. And what’s more unsettling than all of these things is how we’re taking it all in our collective stride. How do you write a realist novel that can genuinely unsettle you amidst everything else that’s vying for your attention?
JM Coetzee’s answer, if The Schooldays of Jesus is anything to go by, is that you don’t. Not write a “realist’ novel anyway, or at least, not in the sense we understand "realism". Coetzee seems to be suggesting, and very slyly at that, that we leave behind such demarcations and come with an open mind to savour what a master of the craft has to offer us when he really does not have anything left to prove; when he is free to indulge himself a little.
It’s useless reducing this novel to one primary theme; there’s simply too much happening, pared down as it is with immense authorial discipline and brevity. But, in keeping with the theme of strangeness, we can certainly ask this question of it: how do you write an allegory for an age with no use for allegories?
Coetzee’s “Jesus” novels follow the adventures of David, a strange, gifted child who arrives on the shores of Novilla, (which means “heifer” in English) with his caretaker Simón, from an unspecified camp called Belstar. As people make the journey across the oceans to Novilla, they lose their memory of a previous life, and essentially start from scratch. What led to such an immigration is never made clear, and it’s one of the many conditions the novel requests that the reader blindly accept.
The two of them try to settle down in this new city, with Simón convinced for some reason that he will identify David’s mother the minute he sees her, in spite of never having met her before. Ultimately, they do find David’s “mother”, Inés, who after an initial bout of uncertainty, decides to adopt David. The first book was essentially the story of their meeting, and their encounter with the insipid, bland existence that Novilla had in store for them. In Novilla, no one goes hungry, but there is little aside from bread to be had, for the most part.
People lead a peculiarly unimaginative existence, and seem quite content with a lack of sensation in their lives. However, several philosophical discussions and minor incidents later, the three characters are forced to flee this life again, as David proves to be too different for the city authorities to handle. The “parents” are asked to enter David in a boarding school of sorts as a means of checking his reckless bouts of reasoning, but David escapes, and the three of them soon flee Novilla for Estrella.
It is in Estrella that our novel begins. David’s difficult nature has blossomed further: he is not a “bad” kid, by any means, but he is certainly odd. David questions everything unceasingly, to Simón’s exasperation. He does not seem too convinced by human morality and reasoning, choosing instead to surrender to wild flights of fancy. He keeps putting new spins on facts of life that we seem to take for granted, and these make for some of the most interesting parts of the book.
In one chapter, Simón and David discuss one of Coetzee’s pet themes, the ethics of eating meat. David, in what is almost a parody of the Socratic dialogue, asks Simón: “Why do they have to die to give us their meat?” One is instantly reminded of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, where a giant, headless chicken developed by one of the numerous laboratories of the future, provides an endless supply of meat without dying. The question, reformulated through a child’s eye, becomes a profound one: are we aware of the death that we participate in every day when we eat meat, or has the notion of the living, breathing animal come untethered from the idea of food?
There are only two schools of note in Estrella: one specialising in dancing and the other in song, and David is enrolled in the former. Soon he finds himself surrounded with arcane theories that link numbers with the stars, both of which are “brought down” to Earth through the human appropriation of dance.
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