The remarkable child, David, whose origin and parents are unknown, is now 10 years old, living with his guardians, Simón – the novel’s third-person observer – and Inès, in a small town called Estrella. Having been judged too obstinate for regular schooling, he takes only dancing and music classes at the local academy. The novel opens with Simón watching David and the other local boys playing kickabout. As often, Coetzee employs cliche (that device against which Amis has long been at exhausting war) for elemental, universalising effect. “It was a crisp autumn afternoon,” reads the deceptively easeful first line of an opening paragraph that is so studied in its normality that the appearance near its end of “a man in a dark suit” is already powerfully ominous.
‘I’m well aware,’ Coetzee said in 2018, ‘that this talk about fictional characters who demand entry into the real world is a metaphor ... But it seems to me there’s nothing wrong in talking in metaphors.’ Perhaps it’s because he’s more concerned with the metaphors than with what the metaphors are for that these novels don’t come across, in the end, as arid intellectual puzzles. Chapter by chapter, they have a lucid, playful quality, as though Coetzee is taking his preoccupations out for gentle strolls instead of subjecting them to remorseless Dostoevskian pressure. Perhaps he is simply amusing himself by writing philosophical dialogues in which one of the speakers asks annoying questions not because he’s Socrates but because he’s a small child. The tone darkens a bit, not surprisingly, in Death, and there’s a concomitant rise in the teasing of meaning-hungry readers. But it’s still tempting to see the Jesus stuff as a structural device not unlike the Odyssey in Ulysses, one in which the writer has no particular investment. ‘The persistence of the soul in an unrecognisable form, unknown to itself, without memory, without identity’, as the essayist in Diary of a Bad Year puts it, seems to engage Coetzee’s imagination more than the motifs from the gospels do.
And so on… great fun for us Coetzee geeks, for sure, but why should others care? Even at their most inscrutable, the Jesus stories have a taut, supple muscularity that tugs you into the human ordeals of Simón, Inés and David, whatever clouds of implication they may trail. Coetzee always writes with pace and precision. His otherworldly landscapes have a gritty, scuffed plausibility. Never overlook the deadpan comedy, either: he learned from Samuel Beckett, an early idol, not only scouring austerity but tar-dark wit.
But the novel’s central lingering question concerns the availability and applicability of knowledge. Should meanings be “brought out into the open”? Should the hidden be “revealed”? And if so, how do you actually achieve it – through verbal exposition or musical composition or a kind of divination? Then what do you do with what you know? In the first book, Simón insisted that the aim of philosophy was not to speculate about phenomenal reality – the “chairness” of chairs was a hot topic for Novillans – but to improve one’s life. The new book concerns itself directly with the desire of David and the other characters – Simón, Inés, Dmitri – to become “who you want to be”,”the “master” of one’s “fate”.
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.
Critical reaction to the trilogy so far has been mixed, but Coetzee is on to something. Although rarely given credit for a sense of humour, he has one, and these, in all their seriousness, are playful books. In the last pages of the trilogy, Simón discovers a page pasted into the back of David’s most treasured object, a child’s adaptation of Don Quixote, stolen from a library. ‘Dear Children,’ it says, ‘What is the message of this book? What will you most of all remember of it? […] Write your answers below.’ Placing us in the same position, The Death of Jesus reminds us that meaning, for good and ill, is a kind of game we get to make up as we go along.
The narrative lurches through bizarre turns of event (a psychotic strangler jailed in the preceding book reappears surprisingly employed as a hospital orderly). Roadblocks to comprehensibility are sedulously put in place. Phrases such as “True but also not true” abound. There’s much blind-alley allusiveness. Two characters’ names are Hispanicised versions of Johann Sebastian and Anna Magdalena Bach. Others share the names and personalities of two of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. There’s copious mention of Don Quixote, a book David weaves fey fables around. His posthumous “message”, we’re told, has been penned inside his copy of the novel. But, when it is sought, only other people’s scrawled banalities are found.
As elsewhere, Coetzee's colourless prose is a curious mix of the formal and the fabular, and the nominatively Spanish world the trilogy inhabits is both a blank space and eerily familiar.
It's a disconcerting reading experience that manages to be unsatisfying and suggestive at the same time, but there are clues to suggest Coetzee is interested most of all in questioning the value of stories as receptacles for whatever meaning we wish to see within them.
These are strange novels, easily guyed as clumsy allegories, full of sententious philosophizing, deliberately flatly written, too easily claiming significance through their allusion to the Biblical story. I can only report that I have found them, despite the bafflement, full of truth, irreducible, tearfully moving to read.
The philosophical mood of the novel is at once central to its interest and perhaps its most alienating quality. Too many characters seem to speak in the same deliberative, quietly articulate, contrived way. The Platonic dialogues between David and Simón about the relationship of Don Quixote to “real life”, with their obvious meta-literary implications, will probably exercise the literary critics and philosophers, but don’t make for a particularly gripping read. Coetzee’s prose is as unerringly precise as ever but the strangely cerebral description of Simón’s grief, which might otherwise be the emotional crux of the novel, is oddly unaffecting, however moving the loss of purpose to his life might be.
I’ve given up trying to force meaning into these novels. It’s striking that the most powerful moments in Coetzee’s great earlier books were strongly allegorical and carried deep religious undertones: the washing of the feet of the “little bird-woman” in Waiting for the Barbarians; Lurie’s prostration in Disgrace; Michael K’s journey to deliver his mother’s ashes. These work because, while they are clearly symbolic acts, they also propel the narrative of novels grounded in real human emotion. Now it feels as if all of the pleasures left to the reader of a Coetzee novel are pleasures of the head, not of the heart. The dreamlike nature of life in the unnamed dystopia that David inhabits makes it hard to achieve any degree of emotional engagement with the characters. The Jesus books are all allegory, and it’s an allegory that is endlessly referred, that never hits home, having no real-world corollary...
Through all three books Simón and David look for answers, but Coetzee is asking us to read the trilogy — to read all books — to seek meaning, rather than find it; to understand, paraphrasing TS Eliot, that art communicates before it is understood. “Why he is here,” Simón reflects, “he will discover in the process of being here.” Not knowing is what keeps us going. So this is a ridiculous book, full of unexplained developments, unrealistic dialogue and overcooked analogies. Like Don Quixote, it is a fiction about fiction. But many great books are ridiculous, and ifThe Death of Jesus strikes you in the right place, then you will read its cool, dry final sentences — as I did — with tears in your eyes.