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Before I BeganChristopher Tayler
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The Death of Jesus 
by J.M. Coetzee.
Harvill Secker, 208 pp., £18.99, January, 978 1 78730 211 2
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Let’simagine that after this life, or perhaps before it, perhaps as a step in an endless transmigration of souls, we arrive by ship in a new land. Our memories of a previous existence are washed away. A beneficent but impersonal bureaucracy assigns us names and ages – the ages are apparently chosen by guesswork on the basis of how old we look – and arranges for us to learn Spanish, the language spoken in this new life. The state then pays us a resettlement allowance and leaves us to our own devices in a country that has cars, hospitals and law courts but little in the way of heavy industry, policing or politics. The landscape and the language suggest we’re in a temperate part of Latin America: Argentina or Uruguay, perhaps. But this is a country without a past, a colony or a province without a metropole or a concept of race or ethnicity. People go placidly about their business, sometimes engaging in philosophical debate. ‘There is no before. There is no history. The boat docks at the harbour and we climb down the gangplank and we are plunged into the here and now.’ What would our lives be like under these conditions?

For the best part of a decade, J.M. Coetzee has been exploring this question in a series of novels named for stages in the life of Jesus: The Childhood of Jesus (2013), The Schooldays of Jesus (2016) and now The Death of Jesus. That the novels don’t mention Jesus, and allude to stories from the gospels only in a sporadic and garbled way, adds to the air of mystery around the enterprise. We’re introduced to the new life through the eyes of a man who’s given the name Simón, a name that he seems at first reluctant to use. He’s judged to be 45 on arrival, though people address him as viejo, ‘old man’, and, early on, he himself ‘does not feel of any particular age’. Well-meaning, if sometimes a bit sarcastic, and of a dryly and even pedantically rational disposition, Simón finds himself, in Childhood, speaking up for unreasoning human cravings. These aren’t encouraged in Novilla, the coastal city in which he settles. Sexual desire, in particular, is considered strange and regressive. He complains to a young woman, whom he finds quite attractive, that the local diet of bread and bean paste seems self-mortifying. She reproves his unbridled appetites, then startles him by asking how a wish ‘to grip me tight and push part of your body into me’ comports with admiration for the beautiful and the good.

Simón’s self-appointed task in the new life is to look after a small boy, David, who, he thinks, lost a document that would lead him to his mother on the boat over. (The details aren’t clear thanks to ‘the waters of forgetting’, in which people speak repeatedly of being ‘washed clean’.) In time, Simón becomes convinced that he has found David’s mother in the person of a grumpy woman called Inés, and the three of them make up an uneasy approximation of a nuclear family. Simón is certain he isn’t David’s father – or his grandfather, as people tend to assume – and shows no interest in the boy’s paternity. Inés, who seems to be a virgin and needs some persuading to take on the role of mother, becomes attached to the boy but wants as little as possible to do with Simón. In effect, they become a couple who don’t have sex and aren’t sure what drew them together in the first place, semi-strangers linked only by a concern for their child’s welfare. So, apart from being, in some way, Joseph, Mary and Jesus, they might not be such an unusual type of family.

Most of the time David, who was judged to be five on arrival, comes across as a non-symbolic little boy, interested in football, sometimes affectionate, sometimes petulant. Like many children, he often asks ‘why?’ Simón responds with patient reasoning, which leads to off-kilter philosophical discussions. ‘We partake of the ideal,’ he sums up in one of them, ‘but we also make poo.’ Sometimes David does Jesus-like things: turns the other cheek, for instance, or writes ‘I am the truth’ when a teacher tells him to write ‘I must tell the truth.’ Phrases from the Bible – ‘in whom we are well pleased’, ‘air that blows where it listeth’ – sometimes invade Simón’s speech, and other cultural artefacts from our world have made it to the new life. David comes home from a music lesson singing some mangled lines from ‘Erlkönig’ and teaches himself to read using an abridged edition of Don Quixote, with which he becomes obsessed. He doesn’t accept that people in books don’t exist in the same way as people outside of them, and has similar difficulties with arithmetic. To him, numbers are independent entities rather than useful abstractions, ‘islands floating in a great black sea of nothingness’ into which he’s afraid of falling.

The practical outcome of this – that David can’t or won’t do sums – doesn’t please his teachers. At the same time, adults who spend any time with him tend to become convinced that he’s ‘exceptional’, a word different characters use again and again. He begins to attract attention from, on the one hand, sinners – in the first book, a delinquent called Daga – who tempt him with sweets, tell him inappropriate stuff about sex and believe he has a special insight into their lives, and, on the other, experts on education, who have their own views on his ‘cognitive deficit’ but find his company obscurely compelling. Both types frequently tell Simón that David has started to explain his mysterious inner world to them. But they won’t share his explanations. This pattern continues in Schooldays, in which the family has fled inland to Estrella, the authorities in Novilla having tried to send David to a specialised institution. The delinquent role is taken by Dmitri, a museum guard who doubles, in a dreamlike fashion, as a caretaker at David’s new school. Señora and Señor Arroyo, the headteacher and her husband, fill the role of the unhelpful educators.

Estrella, ‘a sprawling provincial town set in a countryside of hills and fields and orchards, with a sluggish river meandering through it’, is a more easygoing place than Novilla. There are sex workers and local historians and people are less concerned with bean paste. No one is scandalised when Simón and Inés imply that they want to keep David out of the state’s purview, and Señor Arroyo confides that he’ll be hiding his own sons from the impending census, ‘that orgy of measurement’. All the same, Simón has his doubts about the Arroyos’ Academy of Dance, the only private school with a place for David. ‘The training of the soul through music and dance’ takes precedence over workaday subjects, and a kind of Pythagoreanism, heavy on number mysticism and the music of the spheres, underpins the curriculum. The coldly beautiful Señora Arroyo preaches a distinction between ‘noble numbers’, which belong to something resembling the world of forms, and ‘ant numbers’, the small change of arithmetic. ‘We do not teach your children to play ant games, adding numbers to numbers and so forth,’ she explains. ‘I hope you now understand why. We do not want to turn your children into ants.’

The otherworldly Arroyos, the sinister, worldly Dmitri, and Simón, the sceptical man of reason who’s lacking in warmth, battle for David’s soul. Not for the first time, there’s a feeling that the keys to an allegory are almost within reach. Then, they’re snatched away again by a bewildering succession of events. Among these are Dmitri’s murder of Señora Arroyo; his taunting of Simón with proof that he, Dmitri, had been having an affair with her; a trial at which he acts out the role of a holy sinner from a Russian novel, with transparent insincerity; his imprisonment in a psychiatric hospital; and an uncannily spellbinding performance by David of the dance of the number seven.

Coetzee’s new novel, The Death of Jesus, picks up the story three years later. The family has stayed in Estrella, where David, who’s now ten, is still learning to dance under Señor Arroyo. Simón and Inés, in ‘their fifth year together, long enough to have grown bored with each other’, sound more and more like an unhappily married couple. ‘But she is the boy’s mother, in a sense, as he is the boy’s father, in a sense, therefore in a sense they cannot part.’ Simón still thinks the Academy’s doctrines are ‘not a philosophy but a cult’, but sometimes, when no one is around, he puts on the music Señor Arroyo composed to mark his wife’s death, and dances until he has visions of silvery spheres.

Enter a new educational expert. Dr Julio Fabricante, the director of an orphanage called Las Manos, is rumoured, as these proper nouns suggest, to be ‘an advocate of practical education, a foe of book learning’. The children in his care ‘learn the rudiments of reading and writing and figuring before being trained as carpenters or plumbers or pastry-chefs … He is strong on discipline, character-building, team sports.’ Fabricante appears one afternoon when David is playing football and invites him and his friends to play a match at the orphanage. The burly orphans walk all over them – Simón calls the match ‘a slaughter of the innocents’ – but Fabricante offers David a place on his team. In no time, despite his pseudo-parents’ objections, David has moved into the orphanage, where, he reports, the older children drink and smoke and roast fish and frogs over campfires. Simón and Inés can’t get him back because he has told Fabricante they did ‘bad things’ to him, an allegation he admits isn’t true. Another struggle for his soul seems to be imminent, but then the orphanage calls. David has a mysterious illness: could they come and collect him?

Sure enough, David’s legs are wasting away. Apparently, he just started falling over, ‘as if he had been slapped by a giant hand’. The doctors at the local hospital, like all officials in these novels, are reasonable-sounding but not helpful. Dr Ribeiro, the chief physician, says there’s no cause for alarm: David is merely suffering from ‘Saporta syndrome, a neuropathy of the adynamic variety … Unfortunately not much is known about the causes of Saporta.’ Drug treatment and an infusion of blood, a rare type that will have to be sent from Novilla, will have him dancing and playing football again. But the shipment of blood is repeatedly delayed. Worse, Dmitri reappears – he’s allowed out of the psychiatric wing to work as an orderly – and begins to spread unflattering rumours about Ribeiro’s competence.

David’s condition gets worse. His friends and teachers visit the hospital to pay their respects. Before the illness struck, another ominous song – some altered lines from Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder – came out of his mouth unbidden, and he continues to channel fragments of the Bible: ‘I am who I am’, ‘Don’t touch me, woman!’ Perhaps the song was a memory from a previous life, Simón and Señor Arroyo speculate, or a foretaste of something he’ll learn in a life to come. David seems troubled by a feeling that he was meant to bring a message across the water, a message that got lost or that he missed his moment to deliver. ‘Who was I,’ he asks, ‘before I crossed the ocean? Who was I before I began to speak Spanish?’ Later he tells Simón: ‘I never wanted to be that boy with that name … You must promise not to understand me. When you try to understand me it spoils everything.’ He tells unsettling stories about Don Quixote – a version of the judgment of Solomon, for instance, in which a ‘virgin’ has had a child by one of two men:

Then Don Quixote said, Let a bath be brought full of water, and they brought a bath full of water. Then Don Quixote unwrapped the baby from its swaddling clothes and laid it in the water. Let the father of the baby stand forth, he said.

But neither Ramón nor Remi stood forth.

Then the baby sank under the water and turned blue and died.

Then Don Quixote said to Ramón and Remi, Woe unto you both; and to the virgin he said, Woe unto you, too.

At times it seems as though David is about to work a miracle. Someone brings a lamb to his hospital room. Bolívar, the fierce family dog, lies down with it under the force of David’s gaze. But in the morning Bolívar has torn the lamb to pieces, and not many pages later David is dead. The hospital, which has ‘criteria of its own for determining who should be contacted in an emergency’, doesn’t call Simón and Inés. Various people put forward, then retract, claims to be the true custodians of David’s message. The orphans stage an event involving an empty coffin. A gang of enthusiasts frees the animals from a pet shop: ‘dogs, cats, rabbits, snakes, tortoises. Set the birds loose too. Left only the goldfish.’ And reports of spectral sightings come in from all over town. They purport to be sightings of Bolívar, who was neglected in the confusion and ran away.

Like​ the earlier books, The Death of Jesus doesn’t offer much help in ascribing a meaning to the novels’ world and David’s place in it. Is David really exceptional? Does he remember things from another life? Is he a pawn of forces from another sphere of being? These questions are left open, as are those around Simón, who sees himself as a selfless carer for David but is often accused by unfriendly interlocutors of latching on to the boy for obscure reasons of his own. ‘The answer will come when you least expect it,’ Señor Arroyo tells Simón in Schooldays. ‘Or else it will not come. That too happens.’ This elicits an angry speech from Simón about his dislike of ‘cheap paradoxes and mystifications’, and one or two reviewers have felt the same way.

There’s no shortage of material if you want to treat the books as a puzzle to be solved. In the first novel, the young woman’s scolding of Simón is a parody of Plato, whose theory of forms, unattributed, is the principal topic of the philosophy classes the city lays on. Novilla itself bears some resemblance to the healthy city that Socrates reasons into being in Book 2 of The Republic, prompting Glaucon to jeer at its citizens’ simple diet. There’s a resemblance, too, between the novel’s set-up and the myth of Er, also described in The Republic, in which souls drink from the river of forgetting before being carried off to new lives. Presocratic philosophy appears to have a foothold in the fee-paying education sector in Estrella, where the other private academy is called ‘the Atom School’. The Arroyos’ forenames, Juan Sebastián and Ana Magdalena, indicate that they’re Hispanicised avatars of J.S. Bach and his second wife. (Bach can be translated from German as stream or brook, as can arroyo from Spanish.) Dmitri and Alyosha, the rather colourless junior teacher at the Arroyos’ academy, are named respectively for the most impulsive and the most Christlike of the brothers Karamazov.

On top of all this, and as well as the German lieder, the discussions of Don Quixote, and the cryptic allusions to the gospels, there are faint echoes of Robert Walser, W.G. Sebald and others, and nods to Kleist’s essay ‘On the Marionette Theatre’, to Wittgenstein and Heidegger, and to the Spanish poet Rafael Alberti. ‘There is no such thing as a llave universal,’ Simón is told when he gets the Spanish for ‘master key’ wrong: ‘If we had a llave universal all our troubles would be over.’ The reader soon grasps what’s meant. Plato’s image of the soul as a charioteer with two horses, representing reason and passion, crops up twice. In Childhood, Simón has a vision of a two-horse chariot floating through his room with David at the reins. In the new novel, David tells a story in which a sorcerer traps Don Quixote in a chariot that’s drawn by two flying horses, one white, one black. ‘He knew it was a cage, not a chariot,’ David says, ‘but he allowed the sorcerer to lock him up anyway.’ Cervantes, Plato, the Incarnation: there are too many keys on offer to choose any one with confidence, and the same goes for the theme of memories from another life.

At the same time, you aren’t discouraged from wondering how seriously to take these mysteries. The only direct mention of Plato in all three books is a joke: David reports that Mickey Mouse has a dog of that name. The second book has a portentous-looking epigraph from Don Quixote, which, on closer inspection, says that second parts are never any good. Simón often functions as an exasperated comic foil to the affectless citizens and mildly Kafkaesque authorities: the doctor whose only advice when he complains of dizziness is ‘don’t look down’, the parents who sit blankly through Señora Arroyo’s speech about not turning children into ants, the philosophy classes that invariably use examples involving tables and chairs. ‘You don’t need to go to school to be a wise man,’ Simón remarks to David in the new novel. ‘You can just grow a beard and tell stories; people will sit at your feet and listen.’ (Coetzee has a beard.) Each of the three books pushes the storyline along by letting nothing pan out as Simón expects, and builds to a climax in which David doesn’t quite manage to do something supernatural. Simón sometimes worries about being the butt of ‘a very deep joke’, and he might not be wrong.

Perhaps​ any general theory of what’s going on in these novels needs to start from an assumption that one of the main things going on is a resistance to general theories. It’s as though we’re on the other side of one of the logical impasses to which Coetzee often brings his readers, and which he gets past by saying, let’s just imagine we’ve got past it. ‘We make a leap,’ he wrote in 2008 in ‘Eight Ways of Looking at Samuel Beckett’, an astonishing essay on Beckett, Melville and laboratory animals. ‘Leave it to some other occasion to reflect on what this leap consisted in.’ Or there’s the opening of Elizabeth Costello (2003):

There is first of all the problem of the opening, namely, how to get us from where we are, which is, as yet, nowhere, to the far bank. It is a simple bridging problem, a problem of knocking together a bridge. People solve such problems every day. They solve them, and having solved them push on.

Let us assume that, however it may have been done, it is done. Let us take it that the bridge is built and crossed, that we can put it out of our mind. We have left behind the territory in which we were. We are in the far territory, where we want to be.

We haven’t yet got a glimpse of the far territory, the subjunctive land of fiction, but it seems we have to become subjunctive ourselves to get there. Assuming the existence of a bridge also puts us in touching distance of the economist in the desert island joke who has found a supply of canned food on the shore but has no way of opening it (his solution: assume a can opener), and the Jesus novels often seem similarly pitched between thought experiment and exercise in irony, a quality also associated, in Coetzee’s thinking, with the subjunctive. Coetzee discussed his views on irony, at one remove, in an interview he gave in 2018 in which he spoke of his feeling of affinity with Robert Musil, who ‘had the same kind of intellectual formation that I had, he in engineering, I in mathematics’. For Musil, Coetzee said, in order to function in society we have to submit to ‘a kind of blindness’ with regard to ‘the irrational that lies mysteriously under our feet’:

Yet, says Musil, it is still possible to keep one’s eyes open, while one lives and functions in the real world, if one maintains a certain attitude of reserve towards the real. One can live what Musil called in the subjunctive mood. One can live a hovering life, a life without ideological commitment. One can be a being without qualities. One can operate in the mode of irony … To enter this other condition, Musil believed, one must give up the model of scientific thinking and take up the model of poetic creation. That is to say, one must abandon logical thinking in favour of analogical thinking.

Irony, analogical thinking, ‘a certain attitude of reserve towards the real’: it doesn’t seem to me a bad description of what Coetzee is up to in these novels. The absence of ‘ideological commitment’ is relevant too, because one of the main features of the new life is that it rules out the things Coetzee dealt with in the books that made him famous: history, in particular a history of colonial exploitation, and politics, in particular a coercive sort of politics like that of apartheid South Africa. The dark inquiry into instrumental reason that’s staged in Coetzee’s early novels takes aim at colonialism and the apartheid state by way of the Enlightenment legacy that lies behind them. But his autobiographical writing, however trickily presented, always depicts that inquiry as a matter of temperament rather than a reasoned political position. In Youth (2002), the young Coetzee is good at pure mathematics, ‘the closest approach the academy affords to the realm of the forms’, but bad at physics because he doesn’t like taking its laws as given. Why does a ball’s coefficient of elasticity have to be less than one? ‘Why can the coefficient not be exactly one, or more than one?’ In the letters collected in Here and Now (2013) he asks similar questions of the 2008 crash: if things have gone wrong because some numbers changed, why not just make up new ones?

David asks questions like this all the time. To one teacher’s nostrums about the rules of the universe, he replies: ‘I don’t have to be in the universe. I can be an exception.’ A stubborn conviction that reality ought to make way for something better – the kingdom of God, the realm of the forms, the world of chivalric romance – is also what Jesus, Plato and Don Quixote have in common. From this perspective, the novels can start to look like another serving of self-querying autobiographical fiction. In ‘What Is a Classic?’, a lecture he gave in 1991, Coetzee spoke of ‘a key event in my formation’, his first encounter with Bach, and tried to find ‘some non-vacuous sense in which I can say that the spirit of Bach was speaking to me across the ages, across the seas’. In Diary of a Bad Year (2007), Coetzee’s alter ego exclaims: ‘How I would like to speak just once’ to Bach, ‘dead now these many years!’ Simón gets to do just that, but their first meeting takes place on a nudist beach – ‘This is not how he expected to meet him, in the nude’ – and the chain-smoking Juan Sebastián is infuriatingly evasive.

There are lots of strange, funny moments like this. They suggest that, as well as having more of a sense of humour than he’s sometimes credited with, at this stage in his writing life Coetzee might be more interested in giving his unconscious a shake and seeing what falls out. Letting go, or at least tricking yourself into thinking you have, is a recurring theme in his recent critical writing. It’s ‘fascinating’, he writes in Late Essays (2017), when, in Zama, Antonio di Benedetto ‘lets go of the reins of narrative logic and allows the spirit to take his hero where it will’. He gives high marks to writers who get possessed by their characters, as Flaubert ‘in some sense’ was by Emma Bovary, and to those who believe, with Gerald Murnane, that the world they write about is more real than reality. ‘The imagination as a demiurgic power’ is another object of his interest, and there are hints here and there in The Death of Jesus that an unfriendly creator of the kind he pictures in the essay on Beckett might have targeted David for destruction.

‘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.

As for aridity, it’s true that the new life’s fictive furniture is minimalist, a quality that’s even more pronounced in the third book. At the same time, the whole thing is suffused with feeling in a way that’s – as Beckett once wrote in a letter – ‘not the least little bit metaphysical or mystical’. My son was the same age as David in the year that Childhood was published, which might explain why I found Simón’s patient efforts to answer the boy’s questions, and his desolation when David withdraws from him, unbearably moving. But there’s something for everyone. Perhaps an afterlife haunted by inarticulable absences doesn’t seem so metaphorical if one of your children died as a young adult, as Coetzee’s son did in 1989. Perhaps if you’re eighty, an emigrant, and at odds with the dominant culture, then feeling faintly but perpetually wrongfooted, and unfairly shamed by the vestiges of sexual desire, doesn’t seem so metaphorical either. It isn’t only in avant-garde fiction that people feel compelled to stay in failed relationships. And who doesn’t walk around with a name and a birth date they were given in circumstances they don’t remember?

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