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.