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The Schooldays of Jesus, from Nobel Prize-winning author J.M. Coetzee, is aggressively dry and obscure

The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee Viking

The first thing that you should know about The Schooldays of Jesus — the latest book by Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee — is that there is no character named Jesus in this book. The second thing you should know is that this is not really a book about characters, or plot, or story, or narrative. It’s a book about ideas.

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There is a Christ figure of sorts, but not the kind who dies a sacrificial death or works miracles or anything like that. He is called Davíd — though he will be the first to tell you that Davíd is not his true name — and he is a 6-year-old boy of profound precocity.

We first met Davíd in Coetzee’s last book, 2014’s The Childhood of Jesus, which saw him arriving in a nameless Spanish-speaking country that is vaguely socialist, vaguely utopian, and potentially a literal afterlife. Like everyone else in this country, Davíd has been washed clean by his journey, with no memories of his past life, his past self, or his old name. While most residents take their amnesia in stride, Davíd is tortured by it.

Childhood saw Davíd taken under the protection of Simón, who narrates both books, and who in Childhood convinces a suitably virginal young woman named Inés to become Davíd’s mother.

In Schooldays, Simón takes Davíd and Inés to the town of Estrella. There, Davíd begins to attend the Academy of Dance, which holds that if its students can dance correctly, they will call the essence of the true numbers down from the stars. (I am sorry, but it is truly never explained any more clearly than that.) Simón, much bemused, wants to know if Davíd will ever learn fractions; it seems unlikely that he will. Also, there is a sex crime.

Schooldays is not a realistic novel. I would hesitate to call it a novel at all: It’s closer to a Socratic dialogue on the relationship between reason and passion that is structured around a small child for reasons that are frankly beyond me. It aggressively disdains the idea of story in favor of the idea of thought.

Although the title gestures at religious allegory, it’s religious allegory as filtered through the history of the novel (Simón is devoted to Don Quixote, and the prevalence of Russian names suggests you should dig out your Dostoyevsky) and through Platonic philosophy.

Schooldays is the kind of book that will appeal if you think Brecht’s teaching plays aren’t quite didactic enough, or if you look at Lacan and think, “Why couldn’t this be more obscure, though?”

As a book that is ostensibly supposed to be a novel, it is as dry as sawdust. As what it is, it is probably brilliant. Reading it, I felt like Simón watching Davíd do his number dances: “The logic of the dance eludes him entirely, yet he knows that what is unfolding before him is extraordinary.”