MAY 26, 2020
J. M. COETZEE HAS WRITTEN two trilogies: Scenes from Provincial Life, his thinly fictionalized tripartite memoir, and the “Jesus” novels, of which The Death of Jesus is the slim, fittingly titled final installment. In the third book of both series, we must contend with the death of a central figure: in Summertime, the final part of Scenes, it is the author John Coetzee; in The Death of Jesus, it is David, an extraordinary young boy who leaves the world having only partly relayed his message. There are some very obvious conclusions to draw here. They are conclusions reminiscent of the messianic terms in which Wamuwi Mbao discusses Coetzee and his “followers” in his review of Photographs from Boyhood, an exhibition of Coetzee’s childhood photography: “If they could sit at his feet,” Mbao says of the writer’s acolytes, “I suspect they would.” A fair conclusion, I’d say.
But there’s no greater literary caution against easy conclusions than the Jesus trilogy — three novels that, in their Coetzeean combination of spare reality and higher-order philosophical fantasy, deny conclusion. One cannot read analogy and meaning from these books without eventually determining that one is incorrect. Of course this trilogy is an allegory of the story of the biblical Jesus, we tell ourselves. And indeed that story, often termed the greatest we have in the Global West, so thick with ethical and ontological query, is prime storyteller-philosopher Coetzee material. And, of course, Coetzee makes us in turn realize, it is not.
The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus were fine instances of how Coetzee at once reveals and conceals truths in philosophical and mundane narratives. But The Death of Jesus has something additional, something that elevates it to the world-beating poignancy, something that late Coetzee had promised in books like Slow Man but never fully vouchsafed. This is a Coetzee that not only impresses and confounds, but also moves to tears.
The poignancy comes fullest at the close of the book, but it’s there from the start, when we find David and his not-quite parents, Simón and Inés, in the Spanish-speaking town of Estrella in which we left them at the close of Schooldays. Early on, there is the familial fracture caused when David starts to play football for the Las Manos orphanage and decides he should be under the care of the institution, justifying his decision by saying that Simón and Inés aren’t his real parents. It’s a clichéd outburst, but one that arrests. Then there’s David’s constant “why”: “Why does it have to be me?” he asks, weeping, as a mysterious and debilitating sickness takes hold of him. There’s Inés’s exasperation at the hospital staff (and at the overly rational Simón) as David’s condition worsens. There’s the stomach-turning parental terror at David’s relationship with Dmitri, the murderer from Schooldays who worms his way back into their lives. And so, amid all the postmodern biblical allegory, ethical quandary, and pursuit of truth, it is an old writer’s rendering of a parents’ relationship with their child, an interrogation of what those roles constitute, that makes this book extraordinary and enduring.
Whilst Coetzee’s spare, third-person-present style has often been framed as a turn-off for readers, it’s something I’ve always believed to be the heart of his exceptionality. Indeed, for The Death of Jesus, his slow, svelte manner is vital to its force. Where some novelists write in prose so constantly bright and dazzling that our eyes cannot adjust to see its purpose, Coetzee places us in a darkened room in which our sight becomes keener, more incisive, as we struggle to discern the truth of the shapes we see. He makes slowness so slow that it whirrs by. And so, as one races through this book and finds oneself reading the plain lines that close it — simple, offhand sentences like “A pity.” — one cannot help but be irrevocably moved. For those who have been unfortunate enough to be touched by the grave illness of a child — or by questions of the fundamental purpose of surviving — these lines will burn their affect permanently into memory.
Perhaps, a mark of the force of this affect is that it burns its way through The Death of Jesus’s late-Coetzee postmodern inclinations. (Although, a blithe insistence that Coetzee has a “turn” to the postmodern somewhere around the turn of the century is a bit of a falsehood: how easily do we forget that the protagonist of Dusklands, his 1974 debut, went by the name Coetzee?) If the Bible is a touchstone for this book, so is Don Quixote. David refuses to study Spanish language and literature, claiming he can already read and knows about the world, because he has read and memorized Don Quixote, written in the Jesus world not by Cervantes but by Benengeli, the character who Cervantes jokingly insists was the book’s real author. This idea of protagonist-as-writer engenders lengthy debates between Simón and David, and does little to assuage the association of Coetzee with his messianic character. But this is all tongue-in-cheek; one virtue of older Coetzee is his urge to be amusing. There’s even some levity in the book’s refrains from Coetzee’s broader corpus and, indeed, his life: the interest in cycling (Simón’s job as a bicycle messenger and David’s bicycle, “ridden into a ditch”), the commentary on vegetarianism (“I’m not eating chicken meat anymore […] Fish are alive too,” David says, insisting he taught himself this belief rather than ingesting it at Las Manos), the fascination with dogs (Bolívar, David’s loyal hound, a star figure in the trilogy, who, with more divine reference, slaughters a lamb called Jeremiah before disappearing, replaced by a stray called Pablo who is “Bolívar re-embodied”). These moments are typical Coetzee: perhaps unnecessary, certainly opaque in meaning, but enjoyable.
Though, perhaps saying that the poignancy “burns through” these self-referential passages is inaccurate. Affect and affectation in The Death of Jesus aren’t necessarily at odds. Rather, they’re both a part of Coetzee’s one underdiscussed ability: his rendering of humanity. For humanity, despite his seeming coldness, is his fundamental interest. And so, while we wonder whether The Death of Jesus’s plot is driven by its philosophical imperatives or its attentiveness to the mundane, we must not forget the characters that bridge these ideological and material concerns. In Elizabeth Costello, the eponymous character considers the measure of a writer’s success as their ability to inhabit another gender, species, or life through their writing. With the cast of The Death of Jesus, Coetzee pushes the needle of this barometer to its highest marker. Simón, rational yet deeply emotional; Inés, fiercely maternal, implicitly queer, constantly distant; David, immeasurably wise and childlike; Dmitri, either utterly vile or sincerely reformed. They are all amusing but grave, likable but dislikable, right but wrong; they’re all filled, at once, with veracity and consternation. Coetzee sticks true to his conception of truth in the way he draws The Death of Jesus’s characters: while wholly believable, they are not wholly understandable. In Hedley Twidle’s searingly good essay “Getting Past Coetzee,” he calls Coetzee’s books “at the same time both highly abstract […] and shockingly real.” In his finest works — more typically early career but, now, with the Jesus novels, also of late — the ability to be both things lies in large part with his characters’ ability to be both. It is the humanity, in The Death of Jesus, that makes it poignant, known but unknowable, and extraordinary.
There is little left to be said about Coetzee. Perhaps our collective apathy to late Coetzee comes, in part, because we wonder how much he has left to say. But the Jesus trilogy returns us to what we could call “major phase” Coetzee — to the titanic novels of Disgrace, Waiting for the Barbarians, and Life and Times of Michael K, with their expansive brevity, ethical richness, and enduring literary currency — and adds the insight of age. So, without adding too much to the wealth of Coetzee chatter, suffice it to say that J. M. Coetzee is still possibly our greatest writer, and that with the masterpiece that is The Death of Jesus, he reminds us why. Readers may sit at his feet, but if they do, it is for the same reason that David’s friends sit around his hospital bed during his final days, listening to him tell the story of Don Quixote.