The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M Coetzee: a baffling #ManBooker longlist novel

It’s been five weeks since I read the novella The Schooldays of Jesus which was long listed for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. I was hoping that the gap between reading and writing my review would bring inspired thinking to help me make sense of this piece of work. But it didn’t. I am as baffled by it now as I was the day I got to the final page. Such a disappointment because I thought until then that J. M Coetzee would be an author I would want to read a lot more. Now I have grave doubts.

Part of the problem I thought might have been that The Schooldays of Jesus is a follow up to The Childhood of Jesus published in 2013 but which I have not read. But on closer inspection I don’t think it would have made that much of a difference since the The Schooldays of Jesus gives us some of the backstory in small snippets. It picks up from the previous novel where Simon and Ines arrive with their ‘adopted refugee’ son David to begin a new life in Estrella (the country is not specified but it’s Spanish speaking). They find work on a fruit picking farm though neither of the adults has any experience of labouring or farm work. Still they settle into it and make a success. The one cloud on the horizon is that David, the boy they rescued, is a challenging child, always asking difficult questions and finding normal school life too slow for his active brain.

The solution comes in the form of an offer from the three women farm owners, who, seeing his potential, agree to fund him for a place in a special academy of dance in a nearby city. It’s rather an odd place where the pupils learn through dance – everything else is secondary. There David is introduced to the mystical Dance of the Universe; a technique to reach “a higher realm where the numbers dwell”. The idea according to David’s teacher Ana Magdalena, is that each dance has a mathematical as well as an astrological dimension. “You close your eyes while you dance and you can see the stars in your head.” As dancing is largely visual, it’s difficult for anyone other the teacher or the dancer to comprehend this let alone the reader who has to rely on their imagination.

It’s one reason for the breakdown of David’s relationship with Simon. The other is David’s growing infatuation with Dmitri, the caretaker of a nearby museum who is a frequent visitor to the Academy. Things take a turn for the worst when Ines decides she can no longer live with Simon and begins to make a new life for herself. And then Dmitri is accused of sexually assaulting and murdering David’s dance teacher, a development that exposes  David to the reality of life and how distasteful adults can be but finds it impossible to condem Dmitri for his action.

This isn’t much of a plot but then the novel is meant to be one of ideas rather than story, but what exactly are those ideas? What are we meant to take from the novel? There’s clearly a key idea Coetzee is exploring but I’m darned if I can work out what it is. Are we meant to identify David’s story with that of Jesus? Other than Simon who of course is one of the disciples, the only other connection I can make is to the symbolic meaning of the name of the town to which his pseudo parents lead him ( they follow ‘a star’ to Estella) and where a census takes place. Are we meant to see David as an exceptional boy whose great wisdom can change the world? True he asks lots of tough questions and seems to see meanings beyond those Simon can grasp but what child  doesn’t come up with challenging questions as his intellect and curiosity develops? Beyond the mystic of the dance of the numbers I can see little that is particularly illuminating.

Much of the novel is rendered in a rather stilted  form of dialogue interposed with increasingly irritating used of indicators of whom was speaking. Most noticeably we kept bumping up against “he, Simon” or “to him, Simon” and “Then he, Simon” none of which was necessary. Once I spotted this it was hard to avoid.

In short, reading this was not an enjoyable experience.

 

 

 

 

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on October 15, 2016, in Book Reviews. Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. To echo James R, I’m holding back personally for Jesus’ mid-life Crisis.

    I wonder were it not by Coetzee, already well regarded for other novels, if it would be on the list. Perhaps, I’ve not read it so I can hardly speak to it.

    Is the murder pivotal to the book? Murder is rare in real life after all. I don’t mind it in a crime novel where to complain of it would be like complaining of aliens in an SF novel, but in a literary novel I tend to think if one must include a murder it should be pivotal. For most of us it’s such an out of context event you might as well put aliens in.

    Anyway, interesting review, and interesting to see no champions of it disagreeing with you in the comments.

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  2. Thanks for this! I wouldn’t rule Coetzee out though. Disgrace was amazing. In 2017 I plan on starting his Scenes from Provincial Life series (just 3 books) which I hear is pretty decent. This book seemed awkward lol, so I’ll halt on purchasing it for now

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  3. Just wait for his next one: “The late-20s of Jesus.” I preferred Disgrace, even though it took me two readings to get into it.

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  4. I’m generally interested in his works, but often find them challening. I’ll be sure to build in some time for this one if I do take it on: thanks for sharing your thoughts on it!

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  5. I saw this and due to the author, I gave it a second look but decided to pass. Looks like I made the right choice…

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  6. I’ve not read this one, but it certainly sounds challenging! Are you glad you read it to the end or do you wish you had given up on it?

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  7. You are not alone in your bafflement. I heard this book discussed on radio this week, and the reviewer freely confessed to his bafflement too. He said it was a bafflement that he enjoyed, which made me wonder, did he really, or did he have to say that? (That’s not a criticism, it’s curiosity, because I’ve enjoyed books that baffled me … Gerald Murnane comes to mind.)

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    • I don’t expect to get to the end of a book feeling I’ve understood everything but I do like to feel I understood it in part. But I really struggle to say that about this book. Not convinced by that reviewers comment – sure I enjoyed some baffling books (Alice in Wonderland would be an early example) but it was usually because I found some other dimension beyond ideas. They were written beautifully for example. I can’t say that about this novel even.

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  8. I was baffled by The Childhood of Jesus and ended up only skimming it. It’s put me off Coetzee for now, though I’ve heard that Disgrace is very good.

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  9. Sounds like it’s an odd one, and most of the reviews I’ve seen have seemed as baffled as you. Fortunately, I have no need to read it…. 🙂

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