‘The Death of Jesus’ by J. M. Coetzee book review


Simón is dependable, prudent and reflective but seemingly without passion or imagination. Inés comes across as a fussy nag, devoted to David, but lacking an interior life. Joined in a sexless union, they do their best to raise the precocious, headstrong and frequently insufferable child. When David’s teachers threaten to place him in a “special school,” for insubordinate children, the family flees to the provincial city of Estrella. There, as chronicled in “The Schooldays of Jesus,” David enrolls in an academy of dance taught by an icy young beauty named Ana Magdalena who is murdered by an obsessed museum guard named Dmitri. (Coetzee doesn’t always provide last names, but one suspects Dmitri’s might be Raskolnikov.) The lustful, violent and perhaps crazy Dmitri challenges the rational, steady and neutered Simón for David’s affections. Increasingly, David comes to see Simón and Inés as impediments to his self-development.

The new novel, “The Death of Jesus,” takes place about two years later. David, now 10, is an accomplished dancer and soccer player. Dr. Julio Fabricante, the director of a local orphanage, aggressively recruits David away from his “parents.” “To be an orphan, at the deepest level, is to be alone in the world. So in a sense we are all orphans,” he remarks. David leaves Simón and Inés, moving into the orphanage. Before long, however, the boy comes down with a “mystery disease” and is taken to the hospital. A long vigil ensues, the outcome of which — spoiler alert — is telegraphed by the novel’s title. In the hospital, David is briefly reunited with the creepy but magnetic Dmitri, who, having completed psychiatric treatment there, is now an orderly. Dmitri claims that David imparted “a message” to him before dying. But, in a letter to Simón, Dmitri admits, “the content of the message is still obscure. . . . David himself may have been the message.”

The message of Coetzee’s trilogy is similarly inscrutable. The books sit uncooperatively in a zone between allegory and parable, refuting interpretation. The language is spare, almost completely bereft of metaphor. The plots are perfunctory, only occasionally generating moments of suspense. Lengthy passages in all three volumes are given over to exhaustive but often inconclusive philosophical discussions such as this one between Simón and David:

“It is against the rules to summon people from the next life back into this one.”

“But . . . how do you know what is allowed and not allowed?”

“I do not know how I know, just as you do not know how you know those funny songs you sing. But that is how I believe the rules work, the rules under which we live.”

“But what if there are no new lives? What if I die and I don’t wake up? Who will I be if I don’t wake up?”

Most of these exchanges revolve around questions of morality, mortality and metaphysics. While the majority of Estrella’s residents seem content to live unexamined lives, Simón, David and Dmitri share a relentless inquisitiveness that is at odds with the grayscale utopia where they reside, a country apparently without religion, poverty or joy. Simón, who lacks the conviction of David and Dmitri, sometimes becomes a stand-in for the reader as he tries to assemble this puzzle with an insufficient number of pieces. One can’t shake the feeling that Coetzee, in these novels, is perpetrating some kind of practical joke on his readers, a joke that only the author really gets.

The lone work of fiction directly referenced in the trilogy is “Don Quixote.” David teaches himself to read from an abridged copy, ultimately memorizing the entire book. Later, in the hospital, he regales an audience of children with stories of the knight errant. In an essay about Cervantes, Milan Kundera advanced the idea that we are separated from the world by a curtain of preconceptions and interpretations. “Cervantes sent Don Quixote journeying and tore through the curtain,” Kundera wrote. “The world opened before the knight errant in all the comical nakedness of its prose.” Coetzee’s Jesus novels achieve the opposite. They reveal nothing.

Jon Michaud is the author of the novel “When Tito Loved Clara.”


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