What does it all mean? It’s a reasonable question to bring to this final novel in a trilogy by J. M. Coetzee, which began with 2013’s The Childhood of Jesus and continued with 2016’s The Schooldays of Jesus. Each novel advances the story of David, a boy, and his adoptive parents, Simón and Inés, as they attempt to understand each other’s natures, act in each other’s interests, behave advantageously but responsibly, navigate the motives of strangers who enter their lives, and generally discover the temperature of their world – which resembles ours in many ways, but also feels boiled down to certain essential characteristics, sometimes like an allegory or even like a dream about our arts and sciences, our ethics and impulses. To paraphrase one character towards the end of The Death of Jesus: What is this story and why is it here?
When the novel opens, Simón and Inés are living in separate apartments, and David has turned into a lazy, stubborn, brilliant 10-year-old with a gift for abstraction and a fixation on Don Quixote. He decides he wants to be an orphan, and falls back into the orbit of Dmitri, a murderous man of passion – as opposed to Simón’s man of reason – who seemed to have been dealt with in the previous instalment. With David straining at the bonds of family, Simón and Inés must face the possibility that they were only briefly supposed to be his caretakers, and face the attendant consequences for their own relationship.
The Death of Jesus does not, of course, tell readers what it means, but it does engage powerfully with our need to ask this question, which urges us through the story – what question could matter more? – but also holds us back, like a snag or a snarl. There’s always a sense the reader is not quite seeing something, possibly below the surface of the story or possibly composed of elements that reside on the surface alone. If we weren’t so caught up in our human limitations, such as our susceptibility to the gooey allure of answers but also, in this novel, the horrors of the body – there’s a long and painful middle section about a sick child – we’d be able to grasp something important.
In other words, thank God for Coetzee; what other contemporary novelist is both this reliably serious and this confidently distinctive? Taken together, these novels make a remarkable trilogy, a smooth, stony and utterly intelligent work of fiction.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 26, 2019 as "J. M. Coetzee, The Death of Jesus".
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