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J M Coetzee: The Schooldays of Jesus

This book follows on from The Childhood of Jesus, with the same main characters. As I commented in that book, the title is mystifying because the main character, Davíd, who is presumably meant to be the Jesus character, is not particularly the biblical Jesus. Moreover, at the beginning of the book he is six years old and the book ends soon after his seventh birthday. (Itself an anomaly, as neither Davíd nor anyone else knows when his birthday is or, indeed, what precisely his age is.) Though he attends a dance academy during the course of the book, he does not go to school.

As in the previous book, we are following Davíd, who is being looked after by two people who are definitely not his biological parents nor are they even vaguely romantically or sexually involved with one another. Indeed, Inés, the woman, has made it very clear to Simón, the man, that she wants no such relationship and he seems very happy with that. They are together solely to look after Davíd.

The story (sort of) follows the biblical flight into Egypt, when Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt as they have been warned that Herod plans to have all new-born infants killed (the biblical Massacre of the Infants). In this case, Simón and Inés flee Novilla as the authorities feel, perhaps not unjustly, that Davíd should have a proper education. We learn that, as with Herod, there is to be a census and, indeed, this takes place at the end of the book. Unlike Mary and Joseph, the trio flee in a car (borrowed without permission from one of Inés’ brothers) to the small town of Estrella, accompanied by a hitch-hiker, Juan. The country, as we have seen in the previous book, is a fictitious Spanish-speaking country, though one or two place names suggest Chile. Interestingly and oddly enough, Coetzee throws in Spanish words. For example, instead of saying orphan, he uses the Spanish word huérfano. Local colour? Authenticity? ¿Quién sabe?

On arrival at Estella, they decide that they had better work on a farm, picking fruit, something which is common in the area. They do this not for the money, which they claim they do not need but to hide from the authorities. (This is another inconsistency in this book – there are quite a few – in that, while working on the farm they earn money and are kept, therefore have no need of money, yet, when they stop working on the farm soon run out of money.) Simón, who had worked as a stevedore and was therefore used to hard work and Inés, who had not done hard labour, both adapt to the work, while Davíd runs around with the other children, soon bossing then around.

Two issues come to the fore. The first is Davíd’s education. Naturally, he does not want to be educated but seems already well advanced for a boy of his age. He can do basic arithmetic and has even read a child’s version of Don Quixote. They engage a tutor but neither Davíd nor the tutor get on. They do not want to send him to public school as the authorities may be able to track him down. There are only two other options in the town: the Academy of Dance and the Academy of Music. Davíd is reluctant to attend either but the three elderly sisters who own the farm are prepared to pay for him to go the Academy of Dance, not least because they know the owners.

The second issue is that Simón particularly but also Inés are having parenting problems. Davíd is wilful, always questioning authority, has a black and white view of the world and always asking questions they find difficult to answer. More than once, one or both say, it is becoming too much for them (one master and two servants, is how Simón describes their family). This may be because he is becoming a Jesus-like figure – the Bible says very little about Jesus’ childhood – or, as many parents will recognise, he is behaving just like many other children.

Davíd goes to the Dance Academy. This is run by Juan Sebastián and Ana Magdalena Arroyo. While the Magdalena might make us think of Mary Magdalene, it also likely to make us think of Anna Magdalena Bach, the second wife of the composer, as Ana Magdalena is the second wife of Juan Sebastián. The Bach connection is, of course, confirmed by her husband’s name and by their surname. Arroyo is the Spanish for stream as Bach is the German for stream. However, their relevance to the composer is not entirely clear. They teach dance, though it seems that Juan Sebastián is particularly interested in music. Their dance is based on some complex number system, as Bach’s music is alleged to be.

This number system, which Simón particularly does not understand (and nor, to some extent, do I) seems to be some arcane system which Davíd claims to fully understand and further separates him from Inés and Simón, as they do not and cannot understand it. As well as the Arroyos, the other key person at this point is Dmitri, who works as the Principal Attendant at the local art museum, located adjacent to the Academy. The children adore him, as he he plies them with sweets. He is madly in love with Ana Magdalena, which will later lead to tragedy. Simón finds him very annoying.

The second part of the book is very much concerned with Davíd and the Academy, the further estrangement of Inés and Simón and the further distancing of Davíd from Inés and Simón. Davíd becomes very much involved in the dancing and in the Academy and turns much more to Dmitri and Ana Magdalena for adult support than to Inés and Simón. It does not end well.

I remain as mystified by this book as I was by the first. Where is Coetzee going with it? Are we to have a series of stories about Davíd, paralleling or, at least, modelled on the life of Jesus? Is Davíd, indeed, Coetzee’s idea of a modern-day Jesus? If so, will he become a sort of Messiah and, if so, how? I can only imagine that the title of the two books will put off a lot of potential buyers, who will think that the book is a (quasi-)biographic novel of the biblical Jesus. Still, it is Coetzee and the topics of the struggle between parents and children, of how we choose to live our lives, particularly if that is in a way different from our parents, and the conflict between the day-to-day life of survival and the artistic/intellectual make for interesting reading.

Publishing history

First published 2016 by Harvill Secker