The Death of Jesus completes J.M. Coetzee’s trilogy of Jesus novels. First off, there is no one in them called Jesus. Instead, the characters symbolise the biblical context in different guises. Simón represents a Joseph-figure, a foster father and guardian. Inés plays the part of Mary Magdalene, guardian and follower of the child without being blood-related. David is a king-figure, separate, different, wiser and (in his own way), a teacher to others.
The novels are philosophical allegories following the story of David, an exceptionally bright orphan child who finds himself on a boat of refugees from an unknown destination. The first book, The Childhood of Jesus (2014) is essentially a contemporary reimagining of the birth of Jesus. During the voyage a man, Simón, befriends the young boy. On their arrival in a fictional Spanish-speaking country, redolent of somewhere in South America, they are given new papers and new identities and David is unofficially adopted by Simón and a woman called Inés. Book two, The Schooldays of Jesus (2016) describes how David’s enrolment at a dance academy with sympathetic staff finally ends his guardians’ struggle to find him a suitable education.
By the time we reach The Death of Jesus, the third book in the trilogy, David is ten years old. He is passionate about football and the adventures of Don Quixote. A battered library book never returned of the Quixote story is the young boy’s most treasured possession. He has storytelling down to a fine art and entertains his friends by improvising variations on the deeds of his hero’s life. The stories he reads and those he tells are a refuge from the uncertain world that surrounds him and the many unanswerable questions he has, such as “Por que estoy aqui? Why am I here?” If only he knew his purpose like Don Quixote does, who when asked by the slave master, says:-
“I follow the calling of knight errantry. I roam the world righting wrongs. I do not perform magic tricks. You demand miracles of me, yet you offer me neither food nor drink. Fie on you!”
When Julio Fabricante, the director of a nearby orphanage, invites him to play in its football team, David’s innate rebelliousness reaches new heights. Despite protestations by Simón and Inés that David is not an orphan in the accepted sense, because they are looking after him, he insists he wants to live at the orphanage. His tenure there, however, does not last long. He succumbs to a mysterious illness which makes him fall a lot and unable to walk. He is no longer welcome at the orphanage and can’t get Simón and Inés to take him away quickly enough. It is never revealed why his feeling towards the orphanage changes so drastically. Fabricante seems a somewhat disingenuous character and the suspicion is that he only wants children who are unquestioning, obedient and healthy. David, with his unquenchable curiosity and inquiring mind fails on all these fronts.
His doctor, Dr. Ribeiro, appears unable to get to the bottom of David’s illness and there is a strange sense that he is not interested in trying to cure the boy. He tells Simón and Inés that their ward has a rare blood group and he is waiting for blood to arrive by train from a hospital in Novilla, the capital of whatever country they are in, so that David can be given a blood transfusion. Except the blood never arrives and David, in his hospital bed, grows steadily weaker. He believes that he will die even though Simón and Inés, as well as the nursing staff, tell him he won’t. David puts on a brave face and entertains his many visitors – the children from the orphanage and his friends from the apartment block where he lives with Simón and Inés – with stories about Don Quixote. But he never stops seeking clarity about the meaning of life. He asks Simón:
“What if there are no new lives? What if I die and I don’t wake up? Who will I be if I don’t wake up?”
Simón tells the boy that they are drifting into the language called philosophy.
“Do I have to take lessons to speak philosophy?”, David wants to know.
Simón replies that one can speak philosophy and Spanish at the same time. Before he goes to sleep, David says:
“Do you know what I am going to do, Simón? Just before I die I am going to write down everything about me on a piece of paper and fold it up small and hold it tight in my hand. Then when I wake up in the next life I can read the paper and find out who I am.”
One day, when Simón and Inés visit they are shocked to find a man called Dmitri at David’s bedside. What provides an unexpected twist in the storyline of The Schooldays of Jesus is the killing of Ana Magdalena, the wife of the dance academy’s director. So, here is a murderer sitting chatting to their boy. A patient in the hospital’s psychiatric ward, Dmitri has been released and now has a job as a cleaner on the ward. Simón and Inés are, understandably, uneasy about the man’s presence, but he and David have an increasingly close relationship. David tells his guardians that he has a secret message which he has given Dmitri to safeguard for him. Therefore, returning to the novel’s biblical context, Dmitri takes on the role of gatekeeper. When David dies Dmitri, in an uncharacteristic move, writes Simón a long letter filled with rebukes and philosophical posturing about how, as his guardians, Simón and Inés were ineffective in handling the concerns over David’s healthcare. He also implies that David’s message is spiritual rather than one that can be conveyed through communication.
Coetzee’s language becomes sparser as his writing career progresses. In the Jesus books it is completely unadorned by surplus. There are no more words than are absolutely necessary to express his ideas. In this way his philosophical imagery stands from the page in clear relief. The theme that lies at the heart of the Jesus trilogy is an exploration of personhood and what it takes to be a fully integrated member of society. A home, family, friends, and a language by which to communicate and be understood are not enough to be able live a full life. Without a name and identity recognised not only by one’s immediate circle, but by authority ,we are nobody. Therefore freedom is an illusion. We all live in confinement of a kind. As Dmitri says in his letter to Simón:
“The world is, from a certain perspective, a prison in which you decay into crook-backedness and incontinence and eventually death and then (if you believe in certain stories, which I do not) wake on some foreign shore where you have to play the rigmarole all over again.”
What Coetzee is saying is that life, like nature, repeats itself and we are unable to step outside its control. Only in very small ways can we dictate our own quixotic paths. It is also the sum of what the Jesus novels are about. The untimely extinguishing of David’s life is simply a sign of how mighty the force of nature is and man’s limitations in the face of it.