Book review: The Schooldays of Jesus by JM Coetzee

Wednesday, September 28, 2016 Permalink

You know when a book blurb includes the phrase ‘mesmerising allegorical tale’ that you’re in trouble. If you’re and a literary heathen (like moi) that is.

I was reminded of Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, which many Aussies were disappointed not to see on the Man Booker Prize long / short list… which I read in my own very logical and literal way; discovering later that it was dystopian fiction with some deep meaning I’d missed completely.

Book review: The Schooldays of Jesus by JM CoetzeeThe Schooldays of Jesus
by J.M. Coetzee
Published by Harvill Secker
on September 29th 2016
Source: NetGalley
Genres: Literary Fiction
ISBN: 1911215353, 9781911215356
Pages: 272

When you travel across the ocean on a boat, all your memories are washed away and you start a completely new life. That is how it is. There is no before. There is no history. The boat docks at the harbour and we climb down the gangplank and we are plunged into the here and now. Time begins.

Davíd is the small boy who is always asking questions. Simón and Inés take care of him in their new town Estrella.

He is learning the language; he has begun to make friends. He has the big dog Bolívar to watch over him. But he'll be seven soon and he should be at school. And so, Davíd is enrolled in the Academy of Dance.

It's here, in his new golden dancing slippers, that he learns how to call down the numbers from the sky. But it's here too that he will make troubling discoveries about what grown-ups are capable of. In this mesmerising allegorical tale,

I hadn’t read much of this book before checking the Goodreads blurb, needing some context. I usually avoid reviews until after I’ve read the book and written my own (worried I’ll be influenced / tainted by someone else’s thoughts) and I accidentally saw part of a review.

“I’m not sure what I just read,” it said. And I nearly snorted my champagne out of my nose.

Though at least I was prepared.

As it happens (which I didn’t know) this is the sequel to Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus which I gather ends with Simon, Ines and David going on the run.

The book’s set in Spain and as they arrive in Estrella as this book opens. I soon learn several things:

  • Simon is not David’s father.
  • Simon believes he saw Ines and David together at ‘the docks’ when they became separated. He befriended David to protect him and help him find Ines. Who may, or may not, be David’s mother.
  • Simon is significantly old(er) than Ines.
  • Ines and Simon are not a couple.
  • David is precocious, slightly annoying and soaks up information like a sponge.
  • David is… ahem… different.
  • Their names are not Simon, Ines and David.

After a stint fruit picking the farm’s three female spinster owners sponsor David to attend a local ballet school. Ines and Simon want the best for David, but they really want him to be normal and have a real education. His quirks mean – however – he’s unable to attend a local school, so he heads to the (somewhat unusual) Dance Academy.

Our Academy is dedicated to guiding the souls of our students towards that realm, to bringing them in accord with the great underlying movement of the universe….

To bring numbers down from where they reside, to allow them to manifest themselves in our midst, to give them body, we rely on the dance. p 55

It’s there six-going-on-sixty-year old David meets the charismatic Ana Magdalena and her husband Juan Sebastian (Arroyo). It’s also there he (and Simon, who takes on the bulk of the parenting responsibilities) meets Dmitri – a strange man obsessed with Ana Magdalena, and who makes Simon uncomfortable.

There’s a plot in here somewhere. Something happens. But even I sense the book isn’t about that. It’s about passion. It’s about love. It’s about acceptance; and it’s about life and death… or rather, the next life.

Trust me, my boy, there will always be a next life. Death is nothing to be afraid of. It is over in a flash, then the next life begins. p 107

The narrative itself isn’t really the point. It’s the subtext we’re supposed to understand. And I didn’t. Really.

Like The Natural Way of Things, I realise this book is perhaps one big metaphor. There are a lot of references about our lives… and how they start and finish. Whether we’re talking about souls, reincarnation, heaven and hell I have no idea.

Everyone seems to recognise David – who he is, or who he will become, except Simon… which perplexes the pair. David seems pretty advanced for a six, then seven year old… a wise soul, but also a tad annoying and it’s hard to get past that.

I’m surprised I kept reading this book once I realised I wasn’t going to fully understand it. But I was drawn in. By the half-tale on offer. By Simon. And mostly by Coetzee’s ridiculously clever and beautiful writing. Although his habit of double-referencing Simon was strange…. Almost every thought or sentence spoken by Simon ends in… “says he, Simon.” The book’s written from Simon’s point of view, in first person with minimal use of the pronoun ‘I’ or ‘me’. Methinks Simon is perhaps too deferential. 😉

Senor Arroyo describes Simon as a philosopher. He’s embarrassed to be seen thus. Though it’s obvious he is. When he enrols in a Spanish writing class, he’s asked why. He offers up some prosaic answer, but his narrative is more honest…

Why he is here he will discover in the process of being here. p 131

But it’s Simon’s love for David and compassion for everyone and everything else that matters. He tells Senor Arroyo…

I think it is highly likely that Dmitri’s judgement on me is correct: that as a father or stepfather or guide to life I am not the right person for a child like David, an exceptional child, a child who never fails to remind me that I do not know him or understand him. Therefore perhaps the time has come for me to withdraw and find myself another role in life, another object or soul on which or whom to pour whatever it is that pours out of me, sometimes as mere talk, somethings as tears, sometimes in the form that I persist in calling loving care. p 136

Of course we can see that Simon’s love, patience and compassion (not to mention life lessons) are exactly what David needs. And I sense that David knows this too.

I know this review hasn’t done this Man Booker Prize long-listed book justice. I’m now intrigued about its predecessor… not to mention what comes next. Even though I’m sure I’ll understand neither. But perhaps that’s okay.

The Schooldays of Jesus by JM Coetzee was published by Random House UK, Vintage Publishing and is now available.

PS. As a complete aside, it’d be funny if we ultimately learn this book isn’t really about Jesus and is about child abduction. #justsayin

I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review purposes.

Are you comfortable with the allegorical tales? Or a book that is one big long metaphor? 

  • Mareli Thalwitzer
    September 28, 2016

    I like allegorical tales, but maybe I’ll leave this one aside for a while. I think your review did perfect justice to this book!

    • Debbish
      September 29, 2016

      It’d probably be good to start with the predecessor Mareli. I think I’d tackle it – just for the beauty of the words… and the confusion.

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