The world of J. M. Coetzee’s Jesus novels – a trilogy which has accounted for most of the author’s output in the last decade – is not easy to inhabit, nor is it simple. Old stories and myths are half-remembered and reimagined in the minds of the characters. All acts seem to be carried out on meaningless whims. Identities are imposed on individuals who themselves congregate into either loose assemblies or rigid conformities. Everyday acts are justified on ice-thin reasoning. Half the characters consider the other half deluded or simply dangerous. Sound familiar?
Coetzee, who was born in South Africa in 1940, has been writing novels that chart moral decay for decades. In Dusklands (1982) a specialist in psychological warfare is driven to madness by the Vietnam War. Almost two decades later David Lurie, in Disgrace (1999), is denounced following an affair with one of his students and so takes up residency at his daughter’s farm before a brutal attack is acted upon them.
First in the current trilogy was The Schooldays of Jesus (2013). David and Simón have met onboard a ship destined to a city called Novilla. Without any remaining knowledge of their previous lives, they are given new names and are faced with a new language. Simón struggles with local bureaucracy, finds a job as well as a new mother for David, a tennis playing, dog-wielding does-very-little (one identifies) called Inés who lives in a gated community outside the city.
Inés, “of whose history [Simón] knows not a jot” and who was chosen by Simón with more flippancy than one would choose a flavour of crisps, agrees to look after the boy and act as his mother. Inés, whose name means “pure”, then comes to represent the third and vital part to any nativity: The Virgin Mary.
Reading the trilogy over the course of a weekend I found David became increasingly irritating. His constant recourse to arbitrary decisions and his unexplained attachments to certain dislikeable adults leaves the reader at best beguiled and at worst bored. But by the third instalment, this begins to make sense as we see Davis pass fables to those around him.
Yuval Noah Hariri (the guy who wrote that Sapiens book everyone is reading) has a notion that our current predicament is caused by a lack of an overarching narrative. I don’t completely buy this – it seems we need only look at Trump or Silicon Valley to find myths everywhere – but it does seem to explain something about the world of David in Coetzee’s novels.
It is not a terrible world that the characters live in by any means. People have jobs, have meaningful relationships, are keen on philosophical discussions and sports. But the world is completely and painfully flat. The philosophical discussions are too abstracted, and the sports games are fixed. What David manages to bring to Estrella are stories. What we realise by the third novel is that David’s irritating behaviour stems from him not wanting to be part of the very story Coetzee is writing him into: “I never wanted to be that boy with that name,” he tells Simón.
This sense of flatness comes from Coetzee’s style to some degree. All the words are easy, and they must be because Spanish is new to the three main characters. But the novel pares back the lives of the characters which I occasionally found to be too harsh. Everything is in flux and all the relationships, like David’s life, are all too temporary. Identity, too, is unstable and things often essential have been given to David and his parents by figures of authority.
This parring back of the various facets of identity comes from one of Coetzee’s idols, Samuel Beckett. In 1969 Coetzee received a doctorate for a thesis that sought to analyse plots from Beckett’s novels through a computer programme. For Beckett language was made up of words that “don’t do any work and don’t much want to. A salivation of words after the banquet.”
Words, then, particularly those found in literature, are empty as they do not, in Beckett’s view, relate to direct objects and experiences, such as ordering food on Uber or telling your flatmate to STOP LEAVING THE BACKDOOR OPEN. This leads the narrator of Beckett’s Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable trilogy to forget his name, forget his sex and forget all that does not relate to life as he sees and narrates it in his own mind.
David’s means of circumventing the facility of language to create hot air balloons of meaning which seem big and real but are essentially empty is through dance. It is the dance of the characters that Coetzee gives the reader, without any embellishments or analysis and with little atmosphere.
This has caused some frustration with reviewers, notably the reviewer in The Times (Coetzee is labelled the “high priest of obfuscation”) who blames the novelist for giving the reader no clues. Well, he does give the reader much credit which is more than can be said for that reviewer.
This all must be said whilst keeping in mind the role of storytelling in the trilogy. David learns and then retells episodes from Don Quixote to those around him. Whilst in the hospital bed we get a glimpse of David’s own view of himself as he speaks through Cervantes:
“Then minions armed with clubs and staves set upon Don Quixote. Though he defended himself valiantly, he was dragged from his horse, stripped of his armour, and tossed into a dungeon, where he found himself in the company of scores of other unfortunate travellers captured and enslaved by the Prince of the Desert Lands.”
‘”Are you the renowned Don Quixote?’” asked the chief of the slaves.
‘”I am he,” said Don Quixote.
‘”The Don Quixote of whom it is said, No chains can bind him, no prison can hold him?”
‘”This is indeed so,” said Don Quixote.’
We learn the position of the narration to David’s stories in the final instalment. Whilst David is lying on his hospital bed Simón promises to tell David’s story “as far as I know it, without trying to understand it, from the day I met you.” The trilogy becomes a testament to the life of David and his parables. This explains the stripped-down language and descriptions.
Coetzee is no stranger in using his writing to moralise. One might see the Jesus novels as an extended exercise in his dislike for the formal lecture, of which Coetzee has said he “dislikes” with its “pretensions to authority.” Instead, when asked to give an acceptance speech or public lecture Coetzee often turns to story-telling. This is most evident in his book Elizabeth Costello (1998).
In an early poem titled Genesis Geoffrey Hill writes, “By blood we live, the hot, the cold, / To ravage and redeem the world: / There is no bloodless myth will hold.” So it is for the myth of David too. It is no give-away to say that David dies. At his end, he is waiting for a blood donation from Novilla which never arrives. The final chapters of The Death of Jesus tell of the curious effects that David has had on the lives of those around him. It is a novel and trilogy that one will not soon forget.