NOBEL PRIZE–WINNING AUTHOR J. M. Coetzee has long been considered one of South Africa’s foremost living novelists, praised for both his style and his truthfulness. With unusual bravery, he has looked into the abyss of his country’s reality — and, at the same time, into our own. And yet, over the last few years, a certain perplexity has taken hold. In 2013, The Childhood of Jesus appeared; in 2016, The Schooldays of Jesus; and now, coinciding with his 80th birthday in February 2020, a final volume: The Death of Jesus. (The US edition of the novel appeared in May.) But why a story about Jesus? Has Coetzee turned to faith in his old age?
All three novels take place in a fictitious land. None of the inhabitants are originally from the place; all have arrived by ship. None of them know their mother tongue; indeed, not a single one even remembers it. They are all foreigners, refugees. They communicate by means of an acquired Spanish, which Coetzee reproduces in English. Though no figure by the name of Jesus appears, the fact that Coetzee has put that name in the book’s title makes it clear from the outset that this is an allegory, and that this story of refugees will come to a bad end, at least as far as their life on earth is concerned. And yet, the question continues to resound: Is there any other life?
“Do you know what I am going to do, Simón? Just before I die, I’m going to write everything about me on a piece of paper and fold it up small and hold it tight in my hand. Then, when I wake up in the next life, I can read it and find out who I am.”
The “I” speaking here is David — a name derived from Hebrew, meaning “beloved.” As readers learned in The Childhood of Jesus, David lost his parents during the crossing. Simón, introduced in the first book as a “godfather,” took David in as a son and found him a mother in Inés. In all three books, the two adults stand up for the boy, who is apparently the only person in the country who suffers from the fact that he has no genealogy and knows nothing of his origins. It is to prevent this fate of rootlessness, of non-tradition from recurring in the next world — if there is one — that David has come up with his idea for the note.
At the opening of The Death of Jesus, David, now 10 years old, is playing football with other children in the street. The director of an orphanage, referred to as the “educador,” has become aware of the talented young boy and invites him to play for the school team. The boy leaves his home and his “parents,” Simón and Inés; after all, they aren’t actually his parents, he says. Nevertheless, they suffer, as “real” parents do.
The reader never finds out exactly what fascinates David about the orphanage, just as the majority of the motives and interpersonal relationships in the novel remain a mystery. In the scene dealing with David’s note, the boy has already been in hospital for a long time because, as it turns out, he suffers from a rapidly progressing case of polyneuropathy. While the doctors and nursing staff profess to be concerned about the boy, their actual deeds belie this. A much-touted therapy, repeatedly announced to friends and relatives, is not forthcoming; the blood supposedly ordered for transfusions never arrives. The boy’s condition continues to deteriorate.
Coetzee’s Jesus trilogy takes place in a welfare-state dictatorship. On their trip to the country, all the immigrants are washed clean of their previous lives, as if they had crossed the river Styx. The arrivals receive new names and identification numbers. The invisible power of the state pretends to take care of everything; citizens are merely “subjects.” Behind this dystopian country’s pleasantly rational facade lurks a normalizing violence, which in the first part of the trilogy sought to send young David to a reformatory for insubordination — an action that, in turn, caused the “holy family” to take flight.
The state takes people in but strips them of what is theirs, what makes them unique — above all, their memories, their histories, and their passions. Friendliness and uniformity are the rule. No one is to stand out; all are expected to conform. David revolts. Why should two plus two be four, he argues, if after all, the Lord God has made every being unique? Stubbornly, he defends the possibility that there are completely other realities than those the “well-intentioned” authorities suggest. His favorite book is Cervantes’s Don Quixote, with its romance of fictitious knights.
Fiction and myth help us to endure reality, i.e., to bear the fact that we all must die. Fictions provide us with an immaterial parallel world, imperceptibly infusing our collective consciousness. Don Quixote is a principal example of this life-giving power of fantasy worlds. The helmeted man of La Mancha lives in the chivalric dreams of bygone eras: where others see only windmills, he sees giants, creatures from another world.
As little as they appear to exist in reality, David tries to keep these other worlds alive in himself and in society as a whole, which is why he learns by heart a children’s version of Don Quixote that he finds in a library — incorporating it into himself, as it were. He recounts its exploits over and over, while now and again inventing new adventures for the knight of the sad face. Through his voice, the book begins to speak. And what’s more: Cervantes had claimed that Don Quixote, the Spanish national epic, was actually a translation from the Arabic. Coetzee takes up this claim by arguing that the book’s author is not even Cervantes, but its reputed translator, Benengeli. Indeed, as is well known, national epics are often mostly drawn from earlier sources.
David is the only citizen who is in contact with an otherworld. Instead of obeying the laws of the land, he seeks to invent new ones. If it weren’t for the salvific title Coetzee has bestowed on him, he would be considered nothing more than a highly gifted, precocious, and, yes, spoiled little boy. A boy who skips school. Why, the annoyed reader sometimes asks, are his parents so tolerant? Or are they simply powerless? Doubts remain. If David really is a Jesus figure — that is, one who has been called — then it makes sense to defend his resistance against an enforced egalitarianism.
Watching David’s childlike questions poke powerful holes in Simón’s worldview is impressive. But this innovator is not strong enough to withstand general indifference and dictated kindness. The Bible says, “become as little children,” and in The Death of Jesus, too, a conviction prevails that only children are complete human beings (for they have not yet been deformed by society). When David is in hospital, it is mainly children who hang on his every word — friends from the street, the orphanage, the dance school. And when he dies, the children are the ones who decide that their role model must live on in memory: they continue to practice what they believe to have heard or understood. Alyosha, a teacher from the dance academy, tells us:
Bands of them have been racing from shop to shop, overturning displays, haranguing shopkeepers for charging too much. The just price! That is their cry. In one of the pet shops they broke open the cages and set the animals loose […] dogs, cats, rabbits, snakes, tortoises. Set the birds loose too. Left only the goldfish. […] All in the cause of the just price, all in the name of David.
Some children, he says, even maintain that they have had mystical visions. The legends surrounding David’s words and works have begun.
Look at him through their eyes, Simón, through the eyes of children who have lived in an institution all their lives, following an institutional regime with hardly any access to the wider world. Suddenly in their midst arrives a child with strange ideas and fantastic stories, a child who has never been schooled, never been tamed, who is scared of no one, certainly not his teachers, who is as beautiful as a girl but has a flair for football — who arrives in their midst like an apparition, then before they can get used to him falls prey to a mysterious illness and is whisked away, never to set foot in the orphanage again. […] No wonder they have turned him into a martyr and a legend.
Existential questions have been at the core of Coetzee’s books from the very beginning. What is the relation of one tiny, individual life to society as a whole? As far as literature itself is concerned, what influence can stories have on a troubled world? Are stories, such as Don Quixote’s, actually secret messages from other worlds — much like David’s tightly gripped notes for his trip over the border into the life to come? Can literature move us a little closer to the hidden truth?
Coetzee’s mixture of realistic and allegorical modes has characterized his work since his first book, Dusklands, was published in 1974. That novel became a political and literary sensation in South Africa, breaking as it did with all the conventions of realistic storytelling, while connecting the Vietnam War to the colonization of South Africa in the 18th century. Since then, Coetzee’s writing has sustained itself on two things: a radical interrogation of the present and a constant revolutionizing of the novel form. He organizes his novels as theatrical stages, for like in Antigone, life’s dramas must always be played out and negotiated anew. His protagonists are not intimidated by taboos; his heroes expose their confusion thus providing a space for the readers confusion and making them active participants in his investigations of the world.
After Disgrace, perhaps his most classic work, the “novel” Elizabeth Costello (2003) — which presents a series of philosophical lectures in prose — revealed the research-based character of his entire literary enterprise. In Diary of a Bad Year (2007), yet more conventions were thrown overboard, with Coetzee transforming the novel into a score for three voices, all of which share the same page: the topmost voice is an essayist’s; the middle voice an inner monologue by the essay’s author concerning his relationship with his secretary; and the lowest voice the secretary’s, observing the aging writer. Furthermore, these voices are rarely in synch. In comparison with this sort of narrative experiment, the Jesus trilogy seems fairly straightforward.
The trilogy is a sustained metaphysical story, but it is also filled with the voices of other fictions, including references to Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Tolstoy, and Beckett, but, above all — as the title tells us — to the Bible, one of the most widely read books in the world. It is as if Coetzee, in order to make the reader’s access to the drama being negotiated in the story a little easier, has offered a few familiar trails to follow.
But which drama is the trilogy really about? Critics have been at a loss since the first book appeared seven years ago. One has maintained that Coetzee wrote the trilogy to mock the countless exegetes of his earlier work. Others have spoken about Coetzee’s “post-narrative turn” or have interpreted the book as an enigmatic thesis novel or even as some kind of pessimistic anti-theology. In the end, Coetzee’s tale has no message: there is neither resurrection nor salvation.
The style of the book is one of biblical simplicity, even more so than the author’s earlier works. And the focus is, once again, on dialogue, which both sows confusion and demands plurality. In mourning for the loss of his son, Simón’s eruption of emotion shows that he cannot grasp the reality of death:
He forces himself to look at the corpse: at the wasted limbs, whose extremities are already turning blue, at the slack, empty hands, at the shrivelled, never-used sex, at the face, closed as if in concentration. He touches the cheek, unnaturally cold. He presses his lips to the forehead. After which, without knowing how or why, he finds himself on his hands and knees on the floor.
Let it all come to an end, he thinks. Let me wake and let it be at an end. Or let me not wake, ever.
Here, all narrative distance has disappeared. Over the following nights, Simón awakes again and again to hear David’s voice:
“Simón, I cannot sleep, come and tell me a story!”
“Simón, I am lost, come and save me!”
Grief seeps in and covers everything. Simón can no longer walk through the park as before, for as soon as he sees children at play, he asks himself bitterly why only his own child has been taken away, while the others continue to play.
Throughout Coetzee’s oeuvre, death has been an ever-present companion. In Age of Iron (1990), the reader accompanies a woman during her final days as she dies of terminal cancer alone on an isolated farm. In Life & Times of Michael K (1983), a gardener, during the height of apartheid, attempts to bring his frail, elderly mother back to her place of birth to die, but she perishes along the way. Disgrace (1999) has a story line concerning the euthanization of stray dogs, and in Slow Man (2005), an old man who has had his leg amputated following a bicycle accident struggles to take his own life. Just recently, Coetzee made the short life of a young chicken in a slaughterhouse the focus of a story, entitled “The Glass Abattoir.”
In The Death of Jesus, a son dies. His parents mourn. Like the David of the book, Coetzee’s own son Nicolas (as one can read in J. C. Kannemeyer’s excellent 2013 biography) also refused to go to school. But, where Nicolas as a child danced letters at a Waldorf school, the young David, in the second volume of the trilogy, dances numbers so as to connect himself to other spheres. David dies when he is 10, while Nicolas died, in 1989, at the age of 23.
The Jesus trilogy, then, is clearly — also — a book of mourning, a cry of despair that fathers, despite all their love and concern, cannot accompany their children through the world, cannot keep them safe. Like the Jesus of the Bible, David seeks the possibility of a new beginning, seeks to connect himself to other worlds, but he dies of exhaustion in his attempt to defy an autocracy’s pressure to conform. It is no wonder that the Jesus cycle takes place in a country where the past has been completely extinguished. David is almost alone in his struggle to defend his freedom and individuality, something that Simón also mourns. There are no models; the past no longer illuminates the present. David is a Jesus figure, an innovator, as all children are.
“I’m going to the orphanage,” the boy repeats.
“You are doing no such thing!”
She tries to take the bag from his hands, but he draws away. “Leave me alone, don’t touch me!” he cries. “You are not my mother!”
“Now let us go upstairs and talk this out calmly,” he [Simón] says.
With a stony face the boy yields up the bag. The three of them climb the stairs to Inés’ apartment, where he withdraws to his room and slams the door shut.
Inés tips out the bag on the floor: clothing, shoes, Don Quixote, two packets of biscuits, a can of peaches and a can opener.
“What shall we do?” he says. “We can’t keep him prisoner.”
“Whose side are you on?” says Inés.
“I am on your side. We are together in this.”
“Then find a solution.”
Everyone who has had experience with recalcitrant children knows that, at moments such as this, there are no solutions. There are simply questions, and attempts. And humor, of course. And yet, the situation here is serious. The sicker the boy grows, the more existential his questions become: “Por qué estoy aquí?” he asks Simón again and again — not just, Why am I in this hospital? but, Why am I here on earth at all? The boy’s concerns open up to encompass critical questions: What remains of us in a world that has no feeling for the spirit? What traces do individuals leave behind? Will those who do not manage to become the hero of a story be remembered at all? As Simón replies when the child asks, “Por qué estoy aquí?”:
“I don’t know what to say. We are here for the same reason everyone else is. We have been given a chance to live. It is a great thing to live. It is the opportunity to live and we have accepted that opportunity. Life is a great thing.”
“But do we have to live here?”
“Here as opposed to where? There is no other place.”
There are no answers, but one must continue to keep alive the force of such questions in the world.
David yearns for other places, defends them; only too gladly would he have a guarantee that he is here for a reason — that, after his death, people will remember him, just as they continue to speak about Don Quixote (or Jesus). In hospital, he asks Simón:
“But who is going to write a book about my deeds? Will you?”
“Yes, I will do so if you want me to. I am not much of a writer but I will do my best.”
“But then you must promise not to understand me. When you try to understand me it spoils everything. Do you promise?”
Whether in Cervantes or in the Bible, stories, like life itself, are made up of inconsistencies. Coetzee’s Jesus trilogy contains a double legacy: Simón tells the story of David without wanting to understand him — that is, without wanting to finish thinking about him. A human being is more than just the sum of his or her deeds. Yet at the same time, the novel tells Simón’s story, the story of the father who loses his son, who feels that he cannot handle the boy’s questioning power. The novel’s language is marked by the stiletto-like precision that has characterized Coetzee’s prose from the beginning: sharp-eyed and unsentimental. This time, however, it is even sparer, even more given over to dialogue — perhaps in an attempt to touch the untouchable zones of grief.
Though Coetzee grew up in an English-speaking family near Cape Town, he once remarked that English was a “deeply entrenched foreign language.” Most of the time, he spent the long summers on a farm in the stone desert of the Karoo — an isolated desert paradise, where he was familiar with every stone and thorn bush, and where, in the evenings, the birds flocked to the trees by the thousands. There, his English mixed with his relatives’ Afrikaans and the indigenous languages of the farm workers’ children, along with the sounds of the animals and the wind.
After going to England to study, Coetzee traveled to the United States, but at the height of the Vietnam War his residence permit was not renewed and he returned to Cape Town. Back then, the US must have seemed quite foreign to him. He could not “read” its culture, nor could he interpret the conflicts inside himself, and he missed the sound of his own language, its familiar nuances.
South Africa is a country with linguistic handicaps, the author has said. For his part, he has remained faithful to both English and the handicap. He has researched the language of the Nama people, has translated from Afrikaans, and has even corresponded over IsiZulu. He has studied monographs on Khoisan languages, “to speak with the dead,” so that they are not condemned to perpetual silence. In the Jesus trilogy, Coetzee continues his investigations into language, trying to keep the knowledge of the centuries present, as well as its rhythms, sounds, metaphors, and images.
In Disgrace, probably his most famous novel, Coetzee’s professor protagonist comments that he hopes one day to hear the story of Petrus, a black South African, but just not “reduced to English,” since English is an unsuitable medium for expressing the truth of his country. “Pressed into the mould of English, Petrus’s story would come out arthritic, bygone.” This language, which the colonizers brought with them, had violently forced itself upon the reality of South Africa. Whoever shapes the concepts has the say, we can read in The Death of Jesus. Or, as Coetzee has said recently:
I have reservations about English, especially when it has to do with philosophy or politics. Being locked into one language means letting yourself be penetrated by the worldview of this language. In doing so, I am moving further and further away from the worldview that the English language provides. […] I have nothing against the idea of a lingua franca, but it is a fact that every language contains a certain worldview, a worldview that native speakers take for granted. The world is as it appears to them through the prism of their mother tongue. For philosophical reasons, no less than political ones, I am in favour of a plurality of languages and a plurality of worldviews.
The author has further stated that he would likely take the last Dyirbal-speaking aboriginal person with him into the Ark before any plays by Shakespeare.
Coetzee’s own language now resembles the washed-out soil of the Karoo — simple yet intense, composed in a stony present. All of his works contain echoes of other languages — mostly Afrikaans, sometimes German or French, in order to break up the English language and the corresponding worldview, to decolonize English, so to speak. In the Jesus cycle, there are numerous Spanish inlays. “Why do I have to speak Spanish all the time?” David asks at one point (in English). And Simón answers:
“We have to speak one language, my boy, unless we want to bark and howl like animals. And if we are going to speak some language, it is best that we all speak the same one. Isn’t that reasonable?”
“But why Spanish? I hate Spanish. […] I want to speak my own language.”
“There is no such thing as one’s own language.”
“There is! La la fa fa yam ying tu tu.”
Lala-fafa-yamying-tutu. A magic formula. An incantation. Like a shaman, David evokes the existence of other worlds, worlds in which every individual has his or her say. For we need these otherworlds — we must stubbornly insist on them, just as David does. Just as Coetzee himself has done, through a long and brave and storied career.
This essay was translated from the German by Alexander Booth.