Coetzee’s epic manifesto
The Schooldays of Jesus
JM Coetzee, twice winner of the Man Booker prize, was longlisted for a possible and unprecedented third award this year.
This enigmatic fable is the sequel to his 2013 The Childhood of Jesus.
With every new title, Coetzee seems to draw further away from fiction and closer to philosophy.
Characters discuss ideas in a dry and ascetic manner, settings are indistinct and plot appears to be the least of Coetzee’s concerns.
Yet this new novel is strangely alluring. It is hard to pin down why. Schooldays follows the same characters as Childhood.
Simon and Ines, who still have no surnames, have whisked the 6-year-old David away from the prying authorities of Novilla to the liberal haven of Estrella.
They now have to find a school for him.
Guided by the Chekhovian Three Sisters, their new hosts, they send the boy to the Academy of Dance, where he falls under the spell of the ‘‘alabaster’’ goddess, Ana Magdalena Arroyo, and her musical husband.
Whilst at the Academy, David JM Coetzee Text, $45 falls under another spell, of the dynamic Dostoevskian, Dimitri.
That relationship ends in an utter disaster, which will haunt David, and Simon, for the rest of the novel.
It would be an easy escape to label the book an allegory. But for what? An allegory depends on a direct relationship between character and setting and the ideas, events or people represented.
There appears to be no such simple link here.
Coetzee’s driving interest seems (and it is no more than seems!) to be epistemology, or the science of knowledge.
How do we know whether something is true or if it exists at all?
Are these people real and are the events Coetzee describes real, or just the flickering images on a cave wall?
David is described by a maths tutor as having a ‘‘cognitive deficit’’. He finds it hard to classify objects.
When he enrolls at the Academy of Dance, he learns a bizarre Dance of the Numbers, which enacts the mysteries of our numbering system.
Or is it just ‘‘harmless nonsense’’, as the rather cynical Simon thinks. It’s hard to tell. Coetzee’s style is dry, almost artificial in feel, as if we are reading his novel in translation.
The stilted inversions (‘‘Says he, Simon’’ and ‘‘His idea it must have been, this excursion to the beach’’) and the lack of detail in the setting, where people talk in bits of Spanish, lend weight to this impression.
For all that, the novel does haunt and linger.
It is like a puzzling riddle, an enigma that will not go away.
Coetzee probes our very notion of knowledge, and the role of fiction.
As such, he is the bravest living writer.
This would appear to be his enigmatic manifesto.