Tuesday, September 26, 2017
Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee
Coetzee’s quiet skill shows us how an old bible story parallels events that happen today in every country—the dislocation of migration for instance—making us scour the landscape for examples of God working through us. By telling the old story in a new way, we think anew about Christian values—charity, kindness, and love for instance—and what they really mean in practice.
The city Estrella to which Davíd, Inés and Simón escape sounds remarkably like Australia when spoken. Davíd attends a school without regular classes, called the Dance Academy, which teaches numbers through dance by calling the numerals down from the stars. His teacher, Ana Magdalena, is a beautiful woman. After she is horribly attacked by a man who claims to love her, Davíd discovers her body.
The cast of characters is more transparent than the earlier book, though were I to go back to that earlier piece now, having read this one, I’m sure I would find more in it that fits into the myth. What we find ourselves contemplating is the lack of stability in the world, and our need for the society of others. We learn the difference between passion and love between people (passion is selfish while love is unselfish), but also the perhaps contradictory need for passion when choosing a field of study.
We learn that there is evil, that sometimes people do evil things. There is something…something along the lines of “pay attention” that makes the point that we must not be careless with our actions, but should have reasons for what we do. Until the heart of a bear can be put into a human being, Simón tells Davíd, people will have to take responsibility for their actions. “I don’t know why” is no kind of an excuse for bad behavior. We’ll find out in the next installment what happens to those who knowingly do things that will harm others.
Coetzee is such a master. His descriptions of children’s speech and actions are so perceptive—like the dog Bolívar’s swagger—that we trust his descriptions of the sisters on the farm, and Señor Arroyo’s sister Mercedes, who finally teaches Simón to dance, to remember, and maybe to get his passion back.
I like everything about this series. Coetzee gives it to us in installments rather than trying to make one big book of it. As a result, the stories are slim things, which allows us to read with attention. After all, the underlying story is going to be familiar to most of the world. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim believers have all learned the life of Jesus.
The book is available in audio, produced by HighBridge and read by James Cameron Stewart. It is listening to Stewart’s very British accent that I discovered that Estrella sounds so much like Australia. We know Simón and family learned Spanish when they left Novilla, but I'm going to guess the accent you have in your head for this family is not British. No matter. Stewart does a magnificent job. Read or listen, this layered novel is a real treat.
I’d been pronouncing Coetzee’s name wrong for years, so I copy the wiki for you: John Maxwell "J. M." Coetzee ([kutˈseː], kuut-SEE. It occurred to me that I would not be afraid to meet Coetzee, though I am rather timid when I consider meeting other authors I admire. Somehow I imagine he would be kind, and neither he nor I would need to perform.
You can buy this book here: Tweet