JM Coetzee is an intriguing and acclaimed author, having won the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Booker Prize, twice. I very much admired works such as Waiting For The Barbarians, Life & Times Of Michael K and Disgrace. But here’s the rub: I admired them but I never really enjoyed them. There is a frostiness to his work, an almost deliberate opacity. They hint at being profound, but are they?
This book is the third, after The Childhood Of Jesus and The Schooldays Of Jesus, featuring a child, possibly a refugee, who will be called David, who has exceptional qualities. In the first book he was taken in by Simón, a stevedore, in an unnamed Hispanic country. Avoiding certain bureaucratic erasures of David, they fled, after a scene about unblocking a toilet that may or may not have been a symbol. He then went to school in another city, showed precocity at dancing, and witnessed the murder of his teacher by the oddly named Dmitri. Russian and Spanish, written in English – are these not the citizens of nowhere? Is that the point of it all?
This iteration of the story has Simón and Inés, David’s adopted mother and the “wife” of Simón (they don’t have sexual intercourse), faced at first with David’s decision to become an orphan. This is in order to play in the football team of a local orphanage run by a sinister fellow called Dr Fabricante – a name that might mean “maker” or “made up”. His dancing has served him well on the pitch, but he suddenly starts falling. At hospital, he is eventually diagnosed with a condition as fictitious as the country in which these novels have been set.
Before the injury, David has started to sing, in German. It took me a little while, but eventually I realised it was from Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder song cycle – Songs On The Death Of Children. Coetzee forces the reader to become a sleuth, but whether there is any satisfactory solution to the trail is another matter entirely. David entertains his school friends with variations on the only book he has read, a child’s version of Don Quixote, which leads to various pseudo-enigmatic utterances, such as “Through his voice the book began to speak itself.” In a dispute with Simón about Don Quixote having his books burned by his maid we hear the words “She can’t burn Don Quixote because she is inside Don Quixote. You can’t burn a book if you are inside of it, if you are a character in it.” This is the kind of riddling that frustrates me. Is this meaningful, or just two blind men playing chess in the dark?
The quasi-allegorical parts of the book become more evident when David succumbs to his illness. (Not a spoiler, clue in the title). Simón is heartbroken, but having been characterised as an innocent all along, he cannot fathom the grief of Inés. He makes mistakes and mucks up. In this he is in part Simon Peter, the disciple who always got things wrong, and in part he is Joseph, rejected and dismissed by the son he took in.
Inés is the Blessed Mother, with a different twist – and immaculate in her way. Dmitri gets to play Paul. He is the fervent believer in the cult of David and there is an intervention at the funeral where an empty coffin is revealed. It seems as if David has left a message, and it is up to Simón to find what the message was.
The question is, is this a satire on how religions come about, or an attempt to make a modern version of what faith might mean? To be honest, I do not know. There is a political anger that has always been in Coetzee’s work, but here the hedging and the ambiguities seem awfully knowing. It is, by far, the best of the three novels about Simón and David (“of the line of David” – is that another false clue?) and the ending is affecting in a way in which Coetzee rarely is.
There are more than a few stylistic problems. I do not think that a newly introduced female character ought to be identified by her cup size. The almost liturgical repetition of “he, Simón” gets wearing, and the winking Biblical references are somehow juvenile, as if crammed in to import importance. The deeply intoned nature of some passages is merely portentous – “This is what I mean by philosophy. Philosophy tells us when there is nothing more to say. Philosophy tells us when to sit with our mind still and our mouth shut. No more questions, no more answers”.
David apparently can toss a coin and make it always come up heads. Coetzee is more like a chilly carnival Tarot reader, who draws a blank card and says, wryly, make of that what you will. I told a friend I was reading this book, and he said: “At least it’s the last.” I wonder if we will not see The Resurrection Of Jesus or The Second Coming Of Jesus before too long. (Quietly, I hope not).
The Death Of Jesus, by JM Coetzee, Harvill Secker, £18.99