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The antipodes of the imagination

JM Coetzee’s ‘The Schooldays of Jesus’ is defined by its strangeness

Image of JM Coetzee

JM Coetzee. Photo by Bert Nienhaus

CoverNovember 2016Medium length read
 

To paraphrase Wallace Stevens, JM Coetzee is an author whose work resists readers’ intelligence almost successfully. At sentence level, he is, of course, a model of clarity – think of the dry and unornamented perspicuity Coetzee brings to bear in his fiction, the fastidiousness of thought that emits from his creations the way a dot matrix printer unspools. Yet the cumulative effect of this approach is not arid intellection but organic feeling: full-fleshed, mysterious and often extreme. His novels, which are highly selective in their use of traditional realism, can be febrile in their testing of the limits of meaning. They press hard against the glass that divides mundane world from ineffable realms.

How, then, to explain the gap between execution and outcome, between classical order and postmodern experimentation, between philosophical rigour and naive storytelling? In the case of The Schooldays of Jesus (Text Publishing; $34.99), companion piece to Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus (2013), it lies in the tension between the secular form of the novel and the spiritual quest that novel describes. Which is not to say that Coetzee has found God or fallen into some agonised Victorian-era agnosticism in these pages: rather, he is interested in how our contemporary religion – that of Enlightenment reason gone to seed – might be tested and found wanting. What both novels explore is our faith (or lack of it) in the opposing impulse, the great and feckless riot of the imagination we call art. The Schooldays of Jesus is rich and strange, a novel that suggests radical doubt in the efficacy of such fancy and unreason, while framing the argument so convincingly in imaginative terms that this sceptical thesis is undermined.

Those who have read its predecessor will know the drill: a young boy named David, an orphan, arrives in a new country via a refugee camp. On board the boat that brings him, he is taken up by an older man, Simón, a father figure who is determined to help the boy find his lost mother in the new land. This he eventually does, although the woman, Inés, who claims the boy as her own has always been childless. Neither Simón nor David is able to recall his previous life. They have begun again in a new land as blank slates.

This first novel, set mainly in a city called Novilla, introduces us to a world absent of the usual mimetic markers. It is a linguistic and sociocultural mash-up of various nations of the southern hemisphere, including Australia. The language is Spanish but the sense of place is denuded. We come to understand that David and Simón are moving through an antipodes of the imagination: informed and shaped by fictions from the global north (Don Quixote is a signal text, as is the King James Bible) but oddly lacking in local or indigenous stories that might counterbalance the intense referential magnetism of those imported “literary” narratives.

All we know as readers is that names and references scattered throughout point to the possibility that David is no ordinary child. He is strong-willed, fey, and precocious in many respects. He refuses the many requests of reasonable behaviour made by his “parents” and questions the world from first principles. He evades the usual paths to maturity in a manner that is sometimes startling but more often obtuse. It is Inés and Simón’s efforts to protect this strange boy from a society which may seek to expunge his specialness that ultimately obliges them to flee Novilla. At the conclusion of Childhood they hit the road, David not in tow so much as leading the way.

Schooldays opens soon afterwards, with the arrival of the small family in the city of Estrella (an intriguing rhyme because Estrella means “star” in Spanish and the refugee camp from which the boy originally hailed was called Belstar). It is quieter and more provincial than Novilla: a place in which to hide in plain sight, take stock, find work, and attend to the question of instruction for the child. After Inés and Simón make a failed attempt to engage a tutor, several nuns from the order that owns the farm where they find employment and accommodation take an interest in David. They offer to pay for him to attend the Academy of Dance in the town. The school, run by a husband-and-wife team, has some eccentric, Steiner-esque views regarding education, but David immediately takes to the place.

As the boy is drawn closer to the circle that surrounds the school – the coldly beautiful dancing teacher, Ana Magdalena; her music-obsessed husband, Señor Arroyo; their gentle boarding tutor, Alyosha – his need for Simón and Inés recedes. Never passionate or even companionate beyond their shared care for David, the couple separate, and readers are left in the company of Simón, a man who feels his age and passivity, his essential unsuitability as a guide or parent to his foundling, more keenly than ever.

Indeed, Coetzee is concerned that the impeccably sensible and liberal bromides that slip from Simón’s lips when seeking to guide David’s moral education should be checked at every point by darker and more dramatic potential. Most significant in this respect is the figure of Dmitri, a garrulous and unprepossessing guard at the museum opposite the dancing academy. He openly courts the goodwill of the students and tells them of his hopeless love for Ana Magdalena.

It is an act of violence, apparently committed by Dmitri, that brings the narrative to electric life in the latter parts of the novel. Dmitri is, to Simón, a pitiable and reprehensible figure, though David is drawn to his passion, his outsized gestures and eloquently articulated cynicism. When a court seeks to adjudicate on Dmitri’s innocence or guilt, he shamelessly grandstands, hamming up his sinful state. By now, the lineaments of the plot have begun to map onto an older story. If Childhood was haunted by the ghost of Cervantes and his Don Quixote, Schooldays reiterates those themes and questions – of intimate violence, of God, free will, good and evil – that animated Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

As Coetzee writes of Dostoevsky in an essay first published in the New York Review of Books:

In the major works of the years 1864–80 – Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils, and The Brothers Karamazov – he conducts a searching interrogation of Reason – the Reason of the Enlightenment – as the basis for a good society, and in particular of the good faith of Reason (does Reason not have its own covert agenda, as much to do with an itch for power as with a disinterested quest after truth and justice?).

“This interrogation is carried out at white heat,” Coetzee concludes, “not just because that is Dostoevsky’s manner but because the books emerge from, and speak to, an historical crisis …”

Russia’s crisis was one of modernisation, a pan-national phenomenon against which the Russian author arrayed a Slavic consciousness that he regarded as distinct to Russia – as inextricably tied to people and place. The crisis Coetzee explores takes place in a world wholly de-coupled from real-world concerns. It is a philosophers’ zone in which characters and places and events are summoned into being in order to body forth some aspect of thought or feeling or state of being. As in Samuel Beckett’s late dramatic monologues or Francis Bacon’s portraits, the human is trapped in the cage of the creator’s intention – everything outside that frame is left intentionally blank.

Some of the strongest criticism of Childhood centred on such decisions. It was felt that Coetzee had abandoned the fruitful tension between his tendency toward fabulism and, say, the very real racial tension that governed the politics and culture of South Africa, his country of birth. If it is possible, Schooldays departs even further from a sense of being energised by real-world concerns.

Still, we do not censure Franz Kafka today for failing to more explicitly address anti-Semitism in prewar Prague. As the scaffolding of history falls away, what survives in Kafka emerges precisely from his concrete indeterminacy, his ideological non-alignment. This freed him to explore and describe human forces in their most potent, palpable, unrobed state.

In The Schooldays of Jesus, Coetzee has also ventured beyond the particular to better deal with universals. And who is to say that the immediate losses that arise from this decision may not be regarded as gains to future readers? We should be wary of the biblical inflections announced by the book’s title and teased throughout. Kafka, too, was misrepresented as a religious writer by his editor and early translators. What the Jewish author was concerned with – and what Coetzee is perhaps concerned with too in this, the second of what is presumably a fascinating trilogy – is the use of language and narrative as a means of stepping outside of politics, history and even time itself.

About the author Geordie Williamson

Geordie Williamson is the editor of The Best Australian Essays 2016.

@gamwilliamson
 
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