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

[Read Part One of this post here]

Simón and the newly recruited “mother” Inés take David with the dog Bolivar to another town, Estrella, where they intend to begin anew, to start a new life. It is in Estrella that David becomes a student at señor Arroyo’s Academy, which is “devoted to the training of the soul through music and dance.” This training of the soul also involves the appreciation and invocation of the sacred numbers, which live in the heavens among the stars and are not the “ant” numbers of addition and subtraction, of buying and selling, lesser numbers which are mere simulacra. David thrives here, his dances, “calling down the true numbers,” are profound, “pure light,” but his transcendent studies are shattered by the violent death of Ana Magdalena, strangled by the grotesque Dmitri who astoundingly, inexplicably, has long been her lover. The Academy is shuttered, and Dmitri is tried before one of Coetzee’s hyper-rational absurdist courts where one of the judges reflects:
You present yourself as being without a conscience. My colleagues and I have every reason to send you away to the salt mines and close the book on you. On the other hand, this is your first transgression. You have been a good worker. You treated the deceased with respect until the day you turned on her …
and Dmitri is sentenced to an institution for the criminally insane where he is rather quickly “rehabilitated.” He reappears to become a haunt and a taunt to Simón and a friend and confidant to David.

David’s final dance with señor Arroyo accompanying him on flute is unanticipated and extraordinary. He dances the number Seven, a noble number, a most difficult number. Simón thinks:
The being who dances before them is neither a child nor a man, boy nor girl, he would even say neither body nor spirit … [he] floats through the steps with such fluid grace that time stands still.
Then:
the flute falls silent. With chest heaving slightly, the boy faces Arroyo. “Do you want me to dance Eleven?”
“Not now,” says Arroyo abstractedly.

Like the dances calling numbers down from the stars, Coetzee’s trilogy is profound, mesmeric, the links between its mystifying steps concordant. Each event is a startling block of inevitability withholding the message which is imperative for us to receive. So much must be understood psychologically, like any parable worth its salt. (David is fascinated with the possibility that Dmitri will be sent to the salt mines for his crime, particularly when Simón rather hysterically suggests that “every time we sprinkle salt on our food we can remind ourselves that we are helping Dmitri work off his debt.” Nothing should be taken literally, particularly when what is written has a meaning beyond the words themselves. The unclogging of a sewer line; Simón’s accident on the docks when he falls between the quay and the steel plates of the freighter; the promise of the blood that is to arrive by train; Bolivar’s killing of the lamb, Jeremiah (one in a long line of Jeremiahs because a lamb cannot stay a lamb forever); all are realistically described but multivalent. Everything in these pages demands the reader to read differently, to understand differently.

When Simón and Inés gift David with a watch he refuses to wear it because the numbers are fixed in a circular order. Nine o’clock may be before ten o’clock, he grants, but nine is neither before nor after ten. Just as the future we believe in so fervently is not the future at all but possibly the present or in any case the past which we can’t remember as it hasn’t happened yet.

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David, who argues more and more vehemently that Simón and Inés are not his parents, insists upon going off to live in an orphanage, Las Manos, where he excels at soccer and fascinates the other children with stories and magic tricks. He is not there long however before he inexplicably falls on the playing field during a soccer match “with the way to the goal open before him.” He falls more and more frequently, becomes increasingly weak, and is taken to the orphanage’s infirmary. Simón and Inés are unceremoniously ordered to fetch him but his decline is so swift that he is installed in a hospital where doctors provide their bromides and assurances before admitting that his is an unusual case, even a difficult one. David lies in a bed incongruously decorated with a string of colored lights and with his last strength regales his visitors—the orphans—with the adventures of Don Quixote, many of which he invents. Another visitor, even, indeed, an attendant, is remarkably the murderer Dmitri who dotes on the boy and tells him that his job as an orderly is to take people when they die down to the basement and put them in the freezer.

David’s death is one of the most poignant in literature perhaps because it is rendered at such cool remove.
Because the hospital has criteria of its own for who should be contacted in an emergency, he (Simón) and Inés are not summoned to David’s bedside when his heartbeat grows irregular and his breathing labored … Instead a call is put through to the orphanage and from there to Sister Luisa in the infirmary. Sister Luisa is busy attending to a boy with ringworm; by the time she arrives at the hospital David has already been declared dead …

When Simón arrives and finds the room empty, he is approached by Dmitri.
“Do you want to see? I will show you.”

Down a flight of steps Dmitri leads him to the basement, then down a corridor cluttered with carton boxes and castoff equipment … David is lying naked on a padded table, the kind of table used for ironing laundry, with at his head the string of festive lights flashing alternately red and blue, and at his feet a bunch of lilies …

“I brought the lights along,” says Dmitri. “It seemed appropriate. The flowers come from the orphanage … He is departed as you can see,” says Dmitri.

The child is departed. This enormous but fragile thought, this phenomenon, the occurrence, the opportunity, the seed that fell upon this unfruitful plane has found no place to root. David has always been exasperated with Simón, his impotent guardian, accusing him of “not understanding” or even worse “trying to understand and spoiling everything.” Simón, for all his efforts at nurturing, has not accomplished the work of the soul. He remains as decent and obtuse as ever as he frets and enquires of everyone after the death:
Did David ever speak to you of a message? Did he leave any message behind?

The world in which this unusual presence was deposited so briefly, this place of Coetzee’s, this Novilla, this Estrella, is the afterlife of many afterlives—a modestly functioning mild and agnostic world of no wonder or distinction where passion has devolved into stubborn sexuality and adult improvement has been reduced to nightly philosophy classes of a particularly sophistic sort. Belief in anything that supersedes the human moment is absent. The vision of the sacred, without which the soul dies, has been quenched. All, it seems, has been settled, until once more the enormous transformative thought, the challenge of a new understanding and awakening in humankind appears. Yet it arrives weakened. In its childish vessel it has less cumulative force and coherence with less time to effect its purpose. It stumbles, falls. It departs, and will nevermore return to this world (a fly-specked mirror of our own) for Coetzee’s remarkable, endlessly enlightening, and elusive trilogy concerning life and death and the soul has ended.


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
Our platform Substack was in the news this week as journalist Glenn Greenwald, primary reporter of the Edward Snowdon NSA disclosures and a main character in Laura Poitras’s film Citizen Four, broke with the news organization he co-founded, The Intercept, on charges of censorship, and started his own Substack newsletter. Substack is a platform that allows writers to be renumerated for their work directly by subscribers. Other writers and groups of writers have moved to Substack amidst claims that they’ve been inhibited by a conformist culture or editorial environment. In July political scientist Jascha Mounk launched the newsletter and “community” Persuasion in order to defend “values of a free society” that he and his collaborators take to be under threat from cancel culture. In another vein, environmental writer Emily Aiken started her widely read Substack, Heated, because of institutional constraints at her previous employer (The New Republic). New York Times media columnist (and former Buzzfeed news editor) Ben Smith pointed out in a tweet that contrarian voices currently dominate the top earners on Substack, and on social media there was a small chorus of cheerleading for the necessary work of editors. We here at Book Post humbly observe that we are perhaps perversely a Substack that has an editor, yours truly, and we count on your subscriptions to sustain our model of paying writers for their work (though not, as of yet, me, sigh; see below re social media clout). Ben Smith had a useful consideration of the Substack phenomenon and its implications for journalism in a Times column last May.

Relatedly, the BBC this week released new social-media guidelines, staking out a stricter position than most news outlets in prohibiting employees from advertising their opinions and criticizing their colleagues. News organizations have wrestled with the difficulty of maintaining a sense of objectivity when a volatile social media environment creates stars of outspoken personalities. As Jacob Silverman noted in a spiky appraisal of the Greenwald news for The New Republic, journalists, “when they aren’t forced to seek an exit from an industry in terminal decline, are left to chase readers and clout on Twitter.”

Molly Stern, a commercially successful editor at Crown who lost her position in a corporate restructuring, read the handwriting on the wall and earlier this week announced a new venture, Zando, that will team up with “a select group of beloved public figures, platforms, and institutions” (according to their web site), to, as the Times put it, “act as publishing partners and promote books to their fans and customers.” “By aligning authors with cultural ambassadors of sorts,” the Times continues, “Zando aims to deploy star power to keep its books from drowning in a sea of online content.” Authors have for years been expected to bolster their book proposals with evidence of sufficient social-media followings to act as their own publicists. More and more publishing is cutting out the middle man.

To look back at the old ways for a moment, we lost this week two figures who embodied different poles of our vanishing literary life. In San Francisco, the poet Diane di Prima, who headed west from Greenwich Village in the sixties as an original beat and who persevered as a vital alternative voice in poetry up until her last days in a nursing home, died, writing away, last Sunday, and Daniel Menaker, a consummate insider who though an editor at The New Yorker and Random House seems nevertheless to have been an unassuming pal and professional help-meet to many as well as a witty and self-effacing writer himself, died a day later. And in honor of their website redesign, the complete archive of The New York Review of Books is outside its paywall through election day.

Thanks to all who joined us, and to our host Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, for our virtual conversation on Thursday with Book Post author Calvin Baker about his recent book, A More Perfect Reunion: Race, Integration, and the Future of America. We’ll hope to be able to post it soon for those who missed it.

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