Thursday 22 March 2018

Maddening and obscure, but brilliant

Fiction: The Schooldays of Jesus, JM Coetzee, Harvill Secker, pbk, 272 pages, €17.50

A step into the abstract: JM Coetzee's latest novel is an allegory of Christ's childhood
A step into the abstract: JM Coetzee's latest novel is an allegory of Christ's childhood
The Schooldays of Jesus by JM Coetzee

Duncan White

Literary master JM Coetzee's new novel is predictably opaque and frustrating.

Is it possible for a novel to be a series of boring conversations punctuated by silly dancing, but still be good? In The Schooldays of Jesus, JM Coetzee pulls it off. This is another opaque book from an ascetic author who finds a way of denying you everything you want, while somehow giving you what you need.

When you try to describe Coetzee's novels - bleak, unsparing, experimental - they sound unappetising. You might consume them to make sure your reading diet has enough intellectual roughage. Coetzee is certainly not interested in writing books for escapism or entertainment. His is a philosophical approach to literature. He uses fiction like steel wool to scrub away at himself in the hope of revealing unadorned truths. His aesthetic, too, is suitably parsimonious: every sentence is scraped clean.

To his critics, this makes Coetzee a joyless proposition. Who wants to read abstract or academic ideas expounded in prose that is tasteless and dry? Martin Amis claimed Coetzee had "no talent" and that "his whole style is predicated on transmitting absolutely no pleasure". How, then, has a writer who refuses so much to his readers been accepted as a literary master?

The Schooldays of Jesus is the sixth of his books to have made a Man Booker Prize longlist. If it wins in October, he will become the first writer to have won the award three times. Coetzee first won it in 1983 for The Life and Times of Michael K and then in 1999 for Disgrace; in 2003, he was made a Nobel Laureate to boot. For every reader that finds his reticence frustrating, there is another that finds pathos in his restraint. What he withholds does not necessarily disappear from the book but shapes it by its absence.

Since leaving Cape Town for Adelaide in 2002, he has either inhabited fictional alter egos, such as Elizabeth Costello in Elizabeth Costello (2003) and Slow Man (2005) and Senor C in Diary of a Bad Year (2007), or written austerely about his younger self in the third person in Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002). In Summertime (2009) he upped the stakes: imagining himself dead, he adopted the voice of his biographer and painted a deeply unappealing portrait of himself as a "cold fish".

Having taken us beyond his own death, how much of the self is there left to scrape away? Coetzee is now 76. In his published correspondence with Paul Auster, he wondered about a writer's "late style" - to him, it meant "an ideal of a simple, subdued, unornamented language and a concentration on questions of real import, even questions of life and death". If that's so, then Coetzee was born late. But in The Childhood of Jesus (2013), to which The Schooldays of Jesus is the sequel, there was definitely something more arresting going on than the expression of late style.

"Confession: I have never understood how [magicians] saw the woman in half," John Updike wrote in a 1972 review. "And I do not understand Vladimir Nabokov's new novel Transparent Things."

The Childhood of Jesus was similarly received two years ago. But, like Updike, the reviewers who couldn't make head or tail of Coetzee's odd book stressed that their bafflement was more of a confession than a complaint.

What was there to "get"? The first problem was Jesus, or, rather, the lack of Jesus. Readers expecting something like Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary were disappointed. In Coetzee's novel, a man called Simon takes on the care of a little boy called David, whom he meets on a boat as they sail to a Spanish-speaking town (not in Spain), having been "washed clean" of their previous lives in God-knows-where. With a touch of Kafka, the boy once had a letter explaining who he was, but he'd lost it. We don't meet Jesus.

The blurb of the novel described it as an allegory - but of what? Not very obviously of Christ's childhood. The action (if one might call it that) takes place in the town of Novilla, a bland socialist utopia. As immigrants to this bureaucratic city, Simon and David are assigned names and ages, then they go and find a woman, Ines, whom Simon persuades to become David's mother. The boy is unusually gifted, and the authorities soon want to ship David off to a special institution. They decide, instead, to do a runner.

This is where The Schooldays of Jesus picks up the thread. The assembled family, trying to keep a low profile, have just arrived at a farm outside a town called Estrella. The story unfolds in the present tense; adjectives are sparse and carefully deployed.

It doesn't take long for Coetzee to give us a dose of one of his favourite themes, too: cruelty toward animals. On the sixth page, some boys throw stones at a duck and one breaks its wing. On the ninth page, a man puts the duck out of its misery. By the 12th page, the duck's grave has been desecrated and all that is left is the "head with empty eye sockets and one foot". Welcome back to Coetzee country.

Horrified by what happens to the duck, David interrogates Simon about why justice isn't done and why the rock-throwing boy seems to show no remorse. The pattern is set: David asks questions, Simon answers with patience, David is dissatisfied.

This pattern is at first endearing, even amusing, but soon (like real children) pushes your patience. The owners of the farm - the Three Sisters - take an interest in the precocious six-year-old child and suggest he join Senor Arroyo's Academy of Dance, all fees paid. The boy says he does not like dance and Simon confesses to the sisters: "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." Hearing this, the boy "smiles to himself".

Having verged on the irritating, the novel veers alarmingly towards the tedious. David does enrol in the Academy and learns all about the metaphysics of pure dance from a beautiful but haughty teacher called Ana Magdalena, wife of Senor Arroyo.

Then, just when you're prepared to ditch all this nonsense, Ana Magdalena is murdered. This death brings the novel to life. Hindsight fills the duck scene with significance. The children who threw the rocks were also gorging themselves on grapes: "The children stuff their mouths; their hands and faces are sticky with the sweet juice." David, by contrast, eats one grape at a time. Following one's appetite, we must conclude, leads to violence.

But what is a life lived without appetite? This is the debate that consumes Simon, increasingly isolated as he tries to be a father to his strange son, who appears above earthly desires and exhibits supernatural powers. David says that the boy who killed the duck was "shining", and claims he can "save" both the duck and Ana Magdalena. Later, he says he knows his own "true name". Could he be Jesus after all? At one point, he even cuddles a lamb.

Yet it is Simon - the Joseph of this scenario - who exhibits more Christian virtue than the lordly David. He is generous, humble and sincere, even when wracked by doubt, and sacrifices almost everything for his adopted son. David's questing takes him increasingly into the abstract. The dances he performs are each named after a number and increase in complexity and mystical power as they go up: first it is dance number two, then three, then five, and then a transcendental seven. He even threatens to turn it up to 11 ("It's one louder, isn't it?").

Simon's problems are concrete and it is his questions, not the boy's, that captivate. Coetzee has done it again. Through the invocation of a strange and mostly alienating world he sucks you into interrogating the fundamentals: what we live for, and why.

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