From Nobel laureate and two-time Booker prize winner J.M. Coetzee comes The Schooldays of Jesus, longlisted for this year’s Booker prize, and sequel to The Childhood of Jesus. A welcomed sequel, too. If any of Coetzee’s novels have begged for a satisfying conclusion, it was The Childhood of Jesus. The first novel ends openly, confusingly, and full of questions—exactly where Schooldays begins. Little time has elapsed between the two books, giving the sense that Schooldays is less of a sequel and more of an extension of the narrative. Neither feels like a distinct story without the other—though, as we’ve come to learn about Coetzee, plot is rarely the point. Both novels become extended philosophical discussions, and explicitly so, where characters will argue one point or another about the nature of labour, of passion versus rationality, of numerology and measurement, of the real and the imagined.
It would be easy not to like The Schooldays of Jesus. At times it can be tiresome, confusing, and dull. The plot, taken together with Childhood, is nothing especially interesting in itself, and the character development of Inés and David feels entirely inconsequential. Simón’s eventual epiphany comes too late to be of real significance, and David’s constant, “Why? Why? Why?” comes a little too close to the reality of looking after frustrating children. Some of the philosophical discussions that make up the bulk of the novel could be deemed derivative, self-evident, and dare I say, boring. Not to mention, it’s difficult to write about something like dancing when you’re known for a style that is so completely the opposite of poetic and expressive. Coetzee’s writing can become scholarly and austere, joyless and bleak. In one chapter, he appears to be making fun of himself when Simón writes that another character has described his speech as, ‘overly cool and rational,’ calling him ‘passionless’ and ‘cold’ as a writer. Is this Coetzee’s awareness of how others might see his own work?
But the significance of Schooldays goes beyond the seeming simplicity of the plot and characters. Coetzee writes as if he wouldn’t want his readers to be distracted by words when it’s the unadorned meaning behind them that they should be focusing on. As in the first novel, Schooldays abounds with biblical references, some more obvious than others, that tease at the novel’s underlying allegory. Each member of the family plays their part in the parable—Jesus is played by David the precocious six-year-old, Mary by the seemingly virginal Inés, and Joseph by Simón, who is not the boy’s father, nor his grandfather, but looks after him as a son nonetheless. At the close of Childhood, the family are fleeing from Novilla and following the road to Estrella (the star), where three sisters visit David and grant him the gift of an education. Before it’s decided he’ll enrol at the dance school, it’s suggested that David should take up a more practical trade, like plumbing, or carpentry. The woman who becomes his dance teacher, worshipped for her divine beauty, is Ana Magdalena.
However, these and other more playful allusions seem to be where the allegorical gospel ends. In the place of iron-age Israel we have a nameless modern state of little description. In Childhood, Coetzee takes pains to establish the socialist world that is mostly made up of immigrants, who don’t simply want to leave their old life behind them, but literally forget everything of their former selves. Throughout the first novel, Simón struggles to adjust to life in the passionless rationality of this new society, but by Schooldays seems to have accepted it for all its Vulcan-esque pros and cons. Both novels follow Simón’s philosophical journey as he questions, or rather, as he’s forced to question through his wardship of David, what it means to live a good life and how one attains meaning in that life. Are these things that we can measure, or that we can only experience? While Childhood raised similar questions, it didn’t have the same sense of closure that Schooldays seems to provide, not so much in the way of answers, but certainly in terms of perspective. Together the novels have little to do with the rearing of the son of God and far more to do with the nature of the lives we lead, where the true education we’re reading about is Simón’s as he struggles to answer the basic “Why?” of every single one of David’s questions.
Despite its apparent shortcomings, I did enjoy Schooldays of Jesus, and recommend both it and its predecessor. Far from being entertaining, I felt it was an intellectual journey of ideas rather than a spiritual one of gospel, where Coetzee attempts to impart the meaning of life onto his reader through argument and logic before faith. And what is that meaning? I might have to read it a few more times before I figure that one out.