Review: Joy Williams on J. M. Coetzee (Part One)

In a 2011 letter to Paul Auster, J. M. Coetzee mentions a reading he gave at a literary festival. “I don’t think I distinguished myself at the festival. I was determined not to subject myself to the rounds of public questioning that have become a standard feature of festivals nowadays … So I announced that I was simply going to read a piece of fiction. This was what I did. The fiction wasn’t amusing (it was about life and death and the soul) so it was probably a bad choice for that kind of occasion. The audience response: respectful but puzzled.”

The piece of fiction was surely from The Childhood of Jesus, which appeared in 2013 to cautious, even begrudging reviews. Three years later The Schooldays of Jesus was published. After another three The Death of Jesus appeared, concluding Coetzee’s remarkable trilogy.

As the work accrued over the decade reviewers remained puzzled but grew more arrogantly and dismissively so. And there was less “respect” offered. One critic referred to the work as Coetzee’s “own cranky late Tolstoyan phase.” Others dismissed it as allegory or accused the Nobel winner of mocking us, the readers, enjoying dour fun at our expense as we labored over our determinations of the author’s intent. It was not about Jesus at all though much seemed … familiar. It was not about exiles or immigrants or politics or child rearing or education … though it gestured toward these subjects. It was not about evil or grace or love, or rather it was, but these verities were as shadows, shades. What it is about is the soul. The demands of the evolution of an aspiring soul.

The complete work is over seven hundred pages. It commences with no invocation of a past, proceeds through a bland, orderly, unreal, that is, nontechnological, present, and deposits the main character, the future in the guise of a questioning, charismatic, “exceptional” child, as ashes in a niche behind a plaque on the grounds of an orphanage. The plaque reads simply: David. Recordado con afecto.

The books can be read in any order, I believe. I began with the Death, followed by Childhood, ending with Schooldays. Each portion for me had an intense energy, a timeless momentum, a discomfiting enchantment. They are books to be read more than once. They are, as a character says of David, integral.

The setting is the afterlife, or an afterlife. There are schools and soccer fields, social service agencies, a hospital, docks, and a warehouse, brimming with grain and rats. There is even a women’s clothing shop, Modas Modernas. There are many bureaucratic presences, kindly laborers, impatient teachers, doctors of varying abilities, and a number of orphans. There are also animals: the German shepherd, Bolivar, the lamb Jeremiah, the large and gentle carthorse, a mare whom David nevertheless calls El Rey, and an unnamed wild duck stoned by a group of farm children whom David believes he can restore to life with a kiss.

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The principle figures are the relentlessly thinking and reasoning Simón, who has taken upon himself the care of a child who has misplaced his mother on the voyage to a port town called Novilla. The voyage is not recounted. Upon arrival the child was given a name, David, an age, five, just as Simón was provided with his name and an age, forty-two. The town absorbs them benignly enough but appears quite dull. When Simón asks why there is never any news on the radio, the reply is: “News of what?” Simón is determined to find David’s mother and preposterously convinces them both that she is an ill-tempered and utterly unsuitable woman named Inés who is first glimpsed languidly playing tennis with her brothers at a run-down but exclusive resort, La Residencia. Other principles to come are señor Arroyo, a composer and the head of Academia de la Danza, his beautiful wife Ana Magdalena, the loutish Dmitri, a Dostoevskian figure of simpering manipulative force, and the thuggish and carefree señor Daga who intrigues David very much by showing him a magic pen.

“There’s a lady inside it,” David explains
And you think it is a picture, but it isn’t, it’s a real lady, a tiny tiny lady, and when you turn the pen upside down her clothes fall off and she is naked.

The book progresses in scenes, stages, stations, if you will, of David’s interactions with this world and the ways he is encouraged to comprehend and accept it. It is Simón who instructs him at the beginning, tirelessly, rationally answering his many many questions, producing the “correct, patient, educative words,” though sometimes, as when they discover that El Rey has been summarily shot for, as it was explained to Simón, she was old and “has had her day” he speaks in a different manner to the child. After the grieving David collects wildflowers and weaves are garland to drape over “the dead staring eyes,” Simón says
“There. Now we must leave El Rey. He has a long journey to make, all the way to the great horse farm. When he arrives, the other horses will look at him with his crown of flowers, and they will say to each other, ‘He must have been a king where he came from! He must be the great El Rey whom we have heard about, the friend of David!’”

The boy takes his hand. Under a rising full moon they trudge back along the path to the docks.

“Is El Rey getting up now, do you think?” asks the boy.

“He is getting up, he is shaking himself, he is giving that whinny of his that you know, he is setting off clop-clop-clop towards his new life. End of weeping. No more weeping.

When David begins school and is subject to the tedium of learning to write and count and read “like a normal person” (he has taught himself to read by means of an abridged library copy of Don Quixote and feels strongly that no other book is necessary to him), he rebels and quickly exasperates his teachers with his restlessness and arrogance. He is “obstinato.” The authorities determine that he be sent to a “Special Learning Center,” Punto Arenas, somewhat of a home for delinquents, from which he escapes. A terrible place, David reports. “They made us wear sandals and every Friday they made us eat fish.” Fearing that the school will retrieve him, Simón and the newly recruited “mother” Inés take him with the dog Bolivar to another town, Estrella, where they intend to begin anew, to start a new life. [Read Part Two here]


Joy Williams is a novelist, short story writer, and essayist. Her most recent books are Ninety-Nine Stories of God and The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories.


Book notes
It was sad to read about the layoff of the staff of the Chicago Public Library’s YOUmedia program. Dreamt up in 2009 by the MacArthur Foundation and Chicago’s Digital Youth Network to offer teens learning spaces to “hang out, mess around, and geek out,” in the words of tech educator Mitzuko Ito, and staffed with devoted mentors specializing in STEM, art, music, and other creative disciplines, the YOUmedia labs had become cherished havens for many of the city’s most vulnerable teens, as well as starting points for lives in music and the arts. Chance the Rapper recorded his first mixtape at the Harold Washington Library YOUmedia lab while on high school suspension, and other testimony to the program’s benefits abounds. Says The Chicago Reader, “The low-pressure environment of the library, understood as a public space, made it easy for teens to feel welcome.” “It's rare for a high school student to have an adult they could go to in a friendship capacity and professional capacity that wasn't a teacher or parent,” founding YOUmedia mentor Matt Jensen, told The Chicago Reader. “There were lots of occasions where kids would come to the library with problems that you hope would’ve been addressed in other arenas, like [homelessness]. Through having this teen space and nontraditionally trained library staff, we would be able to put them in contact with resources … Kids could come in and it was a safe place for them to be sheltered.” The mentors were funded by direct grants from the library’s charitable arm, The Chicago Public Library Foundation, and were not protected as city employees. The layoffs came under the mantle of discontinuing in-person programming during the pandemic, but the mentors rightly lament that it was a waste not to use their connection to the city’s kids to develop virtual programs that would reach out to them in these isolated times.

At the American Library Association’s annual meeting this year, former Texas gubernatorial candidate, voting rights advocate, and librarian’s daughter Stacey Abrams, spoke with ALA Executive Director Tracie Hall the vital role of libraries. “We have these flares [of protest] that fade into acceptance. We forget what we know. We have to be more intentional about memory … We need libraries to help us tell the truth about who we are, a nation that promises opportunity but has struggled to make that promise real.” She suggested that libraries be hubs for voting and census-taking.

Library Journal talked with Libraries 4 Black Lives founder Jessica Bratt about her work developing programs for talking about race with kids. She spoke with candor about White librarians’ struggles to connect with diverse constituencies and recognize their own discomfort talking about race, “why it's hard for them—whether that is their upbringing, or the fact that it makes them uncomfortable, all of the loaded stuff that they've been conditioned to understand about race—and then the fact that when they do speak about race, it's not in a way that is affirming for people of color, especially for young kids.” She’s been working on programs to help librarians so that when they “come out in front of people, whether it's an all-white audience or a mixed audience, they're empowered and they can accurately represent a shared American history. And if it does include a shameful part, acknowledge that,” helping “the next generation have those tools to disrupt their own biases. That's really what it's about, having people have the courage to do that, giving them the tools … You may not be a Black professional, you might not be a Black child, but you understand that these are the issues that are facing us as a nation, and this is a way that you can help stand in solidarity.”

The head of the Philadelphia Free Library stepped down last summer after a group called Concerned Black Workers sent an open letter challenging the leadership to address persistent internal racism in a system serving a population that is 44 percent Black. “You cannot heal what you refuse to acknowledge,” librarian Michele Teague told the Philadelphia Inquirer of the administration’s failure to respond to complaints.

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