The Death of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In a piece on The Scarlet Letter in his recent (and frankly titled) collection Late Essays, J. M. Coetzee writes:
The novel The Scarlet Letter is not an allegory—that is to say, it is not a story whose elements map closely onto the elements of another story taking place in some other, parallel realm. It does, however, rely on being read in an allegorical spirit: without the Judaeo-Christian tradition of allegorical reading behind it, it would be a bare little fable indeed.
I suspect that Coetzee wrote that observation with his own fictional project of this decade, the Jesus trilogy, in mind. The trilogy is set in a fictional country where the main characters have landed after a mysterious sea voyage; the country is run in the spirit of a somewhat puritanical socialism. The protagonists of the three novels are our viewpoint character, Simón, a dry, sardonic, reasonable middle-aged man, a man much like his author, one imagines; and David, a little boy that Simón, with a woman named Inés, unofficially adopts. David’s refusal or inability to submit to rational systems of control, from reading and arithmetic to normal schooling, precipitates the main events of the trilogy.
The novels’ titles demand an allegorical reading that the narratives themselves never quite support; David is not exactly Jesus. Yet everyone senses that David is exceptional, including David, and his demurral from the world’s dictates is not merely childish pique (though it’s also that) but derive from his sense of superior perception and urgent mission. Part of Coetzee’s intention, I suspect, is to dramatize in all its estranging weirdness what it would actually be like for a messianic figure of otherworldly sensibility and gnomic speech to invade the reasonable, everyday world. Through overfamiliarity, we have lost our outrage at Christ’s admonitions, with all their belligerence toward human nature and common sense—If any man come to me and hate not his father and mother, and wife and children, and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple—and I believe Coetzee wishes to restore to our time the shock of primordial religion.
In my reviews of The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus, I did insist on a fairly straightforward allegorical interpretation of the novels’ setting: metafictionally, they are laid in the country posited by the ethics of the realist novel itself—humane, prosaic, quotidian, hostile to extremes of desire and unreason. Everything hinges on a double reading of David’s favorite book, Don Quixote, which is either the work that inaugurates the realist novel by satirically dispatching its irrationalist predecessors or the gospel of imagination’s messiah, a holy fool of what the real cannot exhaust or contain. Cervantes’s novel contains both possibilities, both forms of life, and so does Coetzee’s trilogy.
The last volume completes the “Jesus” story, in that David dies—though merely of a mysterious illness, and not, as in the Gospels’ thematically superior story, by the hand of the state—and is succeeded on earth by rumors of miracles and resurrections.
The Death of Jesus opens when David, now 10 years old, is recruited to play for the soccer team of an orphanage (called Las Manos) run by a Dr. Fabricante. The significance of these teasingly suggestive names becomes clear when the head of David’s previous school, an academy of music and dance consecrated to Platonic mysticism, explains Fabricante’s pedagogy:
He is an advocate of practical education, a foe of book learning, which he openly disparages. He runs a school at his orphanage where children learn the rudiments of reading and writing and figuring before being trained as carpenters or plumbers or pastry-chefs—that sort of thing. What else? He is strong on discipline, character-building, team sports.
David insists not only on playing for the orphanage’s soccer team but also on going there to live, since, he reasons, his guardians Simón and Inés are not his real mother and father. He’s indifferent to Fabricante’s Gradgrindian agenda, but claims, in another moment subtle but rich with Biblical implication, that his place is among and his duty is to the world’s orphans. Simón, voicing a constant concern of Coetzee’s oeuvre—how to live outside the world’s ideological and biopolitical systems—tries to reason with the boy:
“No one is above the law. There is no such thing as being an exception to every rule. A universal exception is a contradiction in terms.”
David is, however, such an exception (like Michael K before him) and goes to live in the orphanage. He soon falls ill with a strange disease, however, and becomes the ward of yet another flawed and rational institution, namely, a hospital. Coetzee, never warm to such institutions, satirizes rationalist pretensions through David’s evasive, incompetent doctor, Ribeiro, a portrait of the lethal expert as inhuman bureaucrat. Dr. Ribeiro, evoking another Coetzee hero, the epileptic Dostoevsky of The Master of Petersburg, says,
“You must be wondering whether it is what used to be called the falling sickness. My first inclination is to say no; but that will have to be confirmed by further observation.”
But David is like Dostoevsky—or Quixote or Christ. As he wastes away in the hospital, he regales his vistors from the orphanage with parables of Quixote not found in Cervantes’s novel. In one, Quixote rides a chariot drawn by the black and white horses of Plato’s Phaedrus; in another he renders an anti-Solomonic judgment on a “virgin” who does not know which of two men is the father of her baby:
Then Don Quixote said, Let a bath be brought full of water, and they brought a bath full of water. Then Don Quixote unwrapped the baby from its swaddling clothes and laid it in the water. Let the father of the baby stand forth, he said.
But neither Ramón nor Remi stood forth.
Then the baby sank under the water and turned blue and died.
Was this shock and bafflement what Christ’s original hearers experienced? David also forces his dog to literally lie with a lamb—though after he falls asleep, the dog brutally eats the lamb. As in Cervantes, holy imagination and hideous reality, side by side.
Like Jesus in Gethsemane, David suffers his final agonies as a human being. He pleads with Simón to tell him what will happen after death. Simón assures him that he will travel to another country, and “Don Quixote will be waiting at the quayside to greet you” (in other words, he will always live in the land of the novel). In perhaps the novel’s most moving moment, David cries out that he wants to be himself after his death but not in the same suffering body:
“But I don’t want to be this boy, Simón! In the next life I want to be me but I don’t want to be this boy.”
Dmitri, the murderous vitalist from The Schooldays of Jesus, returns as a hospital orderly (when he’s allowed out of the psychiatric ward), and he again fashions himself David’s disciple and preacher of his gospel. After David’s death, Dmitri writes to Simón and asks him to remove David’s ashes from the wall in the Las Manos orphanage where they’re interred—presumably to aid rumors of resurrection. He also writes of what David meant to him after his murder of David’s teacher in the previous novel:
They keep pushing me, these doctors, to believe that I was not myself when I did it. ‘You are not a bad fellow at heart, Dmitri,’ they tell me, ‘not bad through and through. No it was this or that that made you do it—a seizure, a fit, maybe even old-fashioned demonic possession of a transient kind. […] What do they understand of the human heart? That little boy knew better. Go away, Dmitri! he said. I don’t forgive you!
David, in other words, never spoke the killing language of the institutions—law, medicine, psychology, religion—that lead us to evade our full existential responsibility for ourselves. Given the totality of the trilogy and of his work, Coetzee is no doubt sympathetic to this Kierkegaardian imperative, but his depiction of how David’s followers literalize his exceptionality with tales of miracles and resurrections is just another dead language, a vulgar understanding of his true message, which is finally unspeakable. Simón says to David before the boy’s death, “Philosophy tells us when there is nothing more to say.” When there is nothing more to say, there are only acts—acts and stories, both of which may have as many meanings as observers, hearers, and readers.
David’s old teacher, Arroyo, plays music in his honor, and explains his artistic intention to Inés in lines that bear upon the exceedingly spare style of Coetzee’s own novel:
“In my stumbling way, señora, I try to reveal what has been hidden. In such music there is no place for trumpets and drums.”
No trumpets, no miracles—just the mystery. At the end, Simón studies David’s copy of Don Quixote, a school redaction for children. He finds that the book ends, pedagogically, with the question, “What is the message of this book?” But David never answered: “Now it will never be known what, in David’s eyes, the message of the book was…”
There Coetzee leaves us at the end of this strangest of contemporary fictions. Not all of this novel works, though neither it nor its precursors are playing by any known rulebook: they are the exception to every rule. I do think Coetzee misses a major opportunity by not echoing Christ’s execution—wouldn’t this be a more fitting end for David, on the run from overweening systems as he’s been all his life? Nevertheless, novels as original as these are not to be taken lightly. After David’s death, Simón tries to distract himself from his loss: “All day he is busy; all day he keeps at bay the hole that has opened up in the texture of being.” Coetzee, by contrast, subtracts all the busy encumbrances of fiction, posing as the real world, that take our attention from the higher reality of our universal orphanhood in these suffering bodies, this vainly ordered cosmos.