It’s been pointed out to me that this isn’t the best place to start with Coetzee. Not just because this is the second book in a planned trilogy (the first novel being The Childhood of Jesus) but because Coetzee, with his long, distinguished, Nobel Prize winning career has written many a fine novel and this particular one – The Schooldays of Jesus – is not one of his best. And while this might be the case I still enjoyed it.
Because it is the second novel of a series, I skimmed the plot synopsis for The Childhood of Jesus. The important points are that Simon, on a boat travelling to Novilla, comes across David – not his real name – a five-year old boy who is travelling to the city to find his mother. At some point in the novel Simon and David meet Ines (I believe she’s playing tennis at the time) and David decides that this woman is his mother. After some toing and froing Ines is convinced of this as well and when the authorities want to send David to school all three decide to escape to the adjoining town, Estrella. And it’s in Estrella where the bulk of the action of The Schooldays of Jesus takes place.
In Estrella Ines and Simon decide that inspite of their fears they need to deal with David’s education. They don’t want to send him to a State school because they’re concerned (a) that the authorities will take David away from them and (b) David doesn’t jibe well with traditional teaching methods. When a tutor fails to engage David it’s suggested that he be sent to one of the Academies – Dance or Music. The Academy of Dance is chosen and three sisters enraptured by this precocious and otherworldly six-year-old agree to pay for his education. At this point we are introduced to the beautiful – angelic – dancer Ana Magdalena and her enigmatic husband Senor Arroyo. And let’s not forget Dimitri. A caretaker for the museum next door who has an unhealthy obsession for dear Ana.
In his review of The Childhood of Jesus, Benjamin Markovits describes the setting of Novilla as a theatre stage. The same description can be applied to Estrella. There’s something flimsy and unreal about this small town and not just because it’s never made clear where Estrella is actually located – though the mother tongue would appear to be Spanish. More than that, it’s hard to put a finger on when (temporally) this book is set. People have cars and there are phones, but no-one seems to watch or own a TV – there’s very little technology on display. Discussions about the stars and the philosophy of numbers have an almost mystical quality and while there is an institution called the Atom School where they teach kids to look at… you guessed it… atoms through a microscope, this is a society that – in terms of astronomy – seems stuck on the notion of the Spheres. It’s a muddle. But entirely deliberate. Coetzee is clearly not interested in world-building or creating a place that feels remotely real. Rather the setting is an ephemeral reflection of the character’s discussions about morals, ethics and the passions.
This is a book of ideas, a book that puts philosophy ahead of plot, it’s also a character piece about parenthood and fatherhood. Simon, as our point of view character, deals with the frustration of not understanding the anarchic thought processes of his adopted son. The relationship between David and Simon is key to the novel. For all the philosophical posturing around numerology and the passions, for all the literary allusions that went over my head, this push / pull bond between a confused adult and a highly intelligent six-year-old is the heart of the novel. Simon’s desire to do best for David, even – and especially – when David is rejecting him, seeking attention from Ana and her husband and Dimitri, is the consistent thread that keeps the hazy aspects of the book together. The highlights are the discussions Simon has with David in regard to passion, in regard to love, in regard to violence and tragedy.
Maybe this isn’t Coetzee at his best. But it is a very smart and human and compassionate novel. I look forward to see where he takes David, Simon and Ines next.