J. M. Coetzee
The Schooldays of Jesus
J. M. Coetzee’s The Schooldays of Jesus is essentially the continuation of his previous novel The Childhood of Jesus and it has the same kind of breathtaking sobriety in the face of the strangest and most haunted subject matter in the world. Again, we are in the presence of the sublime child, David (as in House of), with the point of view governed by his foster father, the Joseph figure, and his mother a potent presence in this reconfiguration of the lost childhood of Christ transposed to a makeshift South American country to which these touched-by-something people have come by boat.
The Child who will be King is enrolled at a dance academy where his performance, under the tutelage of a woman whose second name is Magdalena, exhibits the mystical radiance of numbers and touches the movements of the stars. There is also a great crime and a museum attendant, bass-voiced and incorrigible, who has something in common with Moosbrugger in Musil’s The Man without Qualities, though his name, like that of another character, recalls The Brothers Karamazov.
Ever since Elizabeth Costello, Coetzee has been playing with spectral paradigms of fiction that acknowledge none of the surface conventions of realism but touch on depths and mysteries articulated in a style of hushed bareness that borrows from everything this great novelist has learnt from a more crowded and conventional naturalism.
But if these stories of the Chosen Child (which chime with apocryphal stories of the Boy Jesus retold for Christian children 60 or 70 years ago) have a skeletal quality that fits their parable-like sense of portent and their echoic hankering after the consolations of the sacred or the sublime, their command of pitch and narrative momentum is flawless. So, too, is the effortless sense of drama The Schooldays of Jesus flaunts almost like an afterthought.
This is a late romance by the adoptively Australian Nobel prize winner from South Africa, which demands and exhibits the licence Shakespeare gave himself in his romances, where spirituality and improvisation eavesdrop on each other in a way that is consistently heartbreaking, dumbfounding and wise beyond words.
Every page of this parody of a novel is the work of a master and whatever its bewilderments and flirtations with winds that blow where they list, this is manifestly a masterpiece in progress. QSS
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 10, 2016 as "J. M. Coetzee, The Schooldays of Jesus". Subscribe here.