The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee
Following his 2013 parable The Childhood of Jesus, J.M. Coetzee returns to Simón, Davíd and Inés’s story in The Schooldays of Jesus (longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize) as they settle in the new town of Estrella. Their move from Novilla was instigated by Novilla’s local schooling policies, which mandated that all children of Davíd’s age enroll at the academy. But Davíd is different and difficult to contain: the close of The Childhood of Jesus saw the family drive into the horizon, on the lam from truant officers, in search of freedom and alternative education. In Estrella they learn of a non-traditional Academy of Dance, which might offer the abstract teaching that Davíd needs. They buy him a golden pair of dancing slippers and send him off to learn about the world.
The Schooldays of Jesus picks up immediately where The Childhood of Jesus ends and should not be read independent of its first volume. Although a direct sequel, Schooldays is a different sort of book and it is particularly interesting to compare the two while keeping an eye on how Coetzee hones his philosophical focus. In Childhood, Coetzee’s “world-building” is devoted predominantly to the novel’s overall parabolic tone, landing him somewhere between Cervantes, Borges and the apostles. The lessons learned are episodic, rooted in real-life occurrences that evolve into the philosophical. In Schooldays, Coetzee develops bigger ideas, having already shown his readers in the first volume how to engage with his digressions.
Although Davíd is only six in the novel, much of the book focuses on “adolescent” themes of passion and conviction. Although Davíd and Inés still resist calling their union a marriage, they essentially divorce in the novel and often dispute over how the other claims to know what’s best for their child. An attractive teacher at Davíd’s dance academy infatuates the men around her, including one character who openly discusses his obsession with her.
In a sentence that will surely please Coetzee with its sacrilegious irreverence, there is a rape and murder at the center of The Schooldays of Jesus. Of course, sins are at the heart of so much scripture from Sodom and Gomorrah to Judas, but Coetzee backs himself into a strange corner with this, particularly in how this new plot integrates with the philosophical logic of his prose. In the first half of Schooldays and in the entirety of Childhood, Coetzee methodically introduces a broad social “concern” (such as lying, sharing, privacy, and so on) and proceeds to discuss it, often quite abstractly, through the wise, fatherly Simón and the incessantly questioning Davíd. The rape in Schooldays is handled the same way: their discussion circumvents the action from all intellectual sides, and moves dangerously close to victim-blaming and a confounding forgiveness. The perpetrator is sentenced to a mental hospital but there’s nothing holding him there; on two occasions he walks out and travels back to Simón for more rapport.
This does not sit well, but it does open up an important critical point about much of what Coetzee is trying to achieve with his Jesus novels. Consider Davíd’s brash inquisitive nature to be a kind of binary setup: he’s either entirely on or completely off. His mood swings from resolute to inquisitive and back, overruled by definitive compulsions to hate something or someone or irrationally approve or forgive something or someone else. In Schooldays, Davíd discovers how to find something beyond yes or no, beyond singular emotions.
A motif of numerology recurs throughout the novel, particularly in relation to the Academy’s dance lessons. Despite claiming to know “all the numbers”, Davíd learns “there is a way of seeing through… to what lies behind and beyond…the realm of the numbers themselves — the noble numbers and their auxiliaries, too many to count, as many of the stars….” At a recital, the head of the academy explains that they are “dedicated to guiding the souls of [their] students toward that realm.”
“To bring the numbers down from where they reside, to allow them to manifest themselves in our midst, to give them body, we rely on the dance. Yet, here in the Academy we dance, not in a graceless, carnal, or disorderly way, but body and soul together, so as to bring the numbers to life.”
The students perform free-form dances that supposedly channel the celestial presence of the numbers two and three, bringing them down to earth. Later in the novel Davíd performs “Seven.” This all may sound like some Borgesian voodoo but what could be more illuminating than the number two to a boy who only thinks of the world in zeroes and ones?
Condensed and simplified, Coetzee’s lesson appears to be that there are countless ways of looking at things. The central rape and murder in the novel is a calculated and polarizing twist, and it makes sense that Coetzee would take many chapters to evaluate the man’s psychology and his action’s social impact when most readers would send the perpetrator to rot upon hearing his initial confession. Consider it like a final exam: will we react brashly like Davíd and decide with our impulses, or will we approach like Simón, with reason? Or, maybe neither approach is appropriate, and that’s the true lesson of The Schooldays of Jesus. That the world, occasionally, cannot be reasoned with or understood, and that “a string of Why? questions” cannot explain the infinitude of human possibility.