Coet­zee’s epic man­i­festo

The School­days of Je­sus

Sunday Star-Times - Escape - - BOOKS REVIEWS - STEVE WALKER

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.

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