Is it just a writer’s insecurity? As though worried that he, or we, might forget what he’s up against, J M Coetzee regularly produces books that measure themselves alongside canonical predecessors: Life & Times of Michael K wears its debt to Kafka in its title, just as Foe beckons to Robinson Crusoe. The Master of Petersburg is a fantasia that bends Dostoevsky into The Brothers Karamazov. If it isn’t insecurity, it might be hubris, in which case Coetzee’s Jesus trilogy is likely to do little more than strengthen the arguments of his detractors – which monument can I stand next to now, Ma? The sense of a writer finding material worth riffing on never quite goes away, but there is more to it than that: in their needling, selfish, dry-as-dust way, these three books are works of cumulative power and never less than consistent interest.
Like the two novels that preceded it, The Death of Jesus is difficult to get a handle on. Of course, given the title, its trajectory is clearer than those of The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus. But the sense of half knowing what is happening, of seeing the story we recognise in the shadows of the story we are being told, accompanies this book just as much as the others.
The Childhood of Jesus begins with the arrival in an unnamed, Spanish-speaking country of Simón and David, a man and a child who is not his son. They are welcomed as refugees, fed and clothed (‘For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in’), and they start to search for their places in this environment. By some mystical process, which may be simple bloody-mindedness, Simón identifies a woman named Inés as the boy’s mother, although she may not be, and a tentative, slightly antagonistic family unit is formed. At the end of the novel the three of them drive to another town after an attempt is made to take David away and institutionalise him. In the second novel David is registered at an academy of dance, where he learns dances representing some of the cardinal numbers; in The Death of Jesus David succumbs to a neurological condition that first of all affects his ability to walk and dance and then leads to his already-announced death. In many ways the plot of the trilogy is that of a standard-issue family saga, with its reversals, developments and dei ex machina.
What is interesting about these books, however, is not this surface level of event, but the environment in which the events are bedded. The trilogy is a work of speculative fiction, geared towards answering a particular question: what kind of Christ might grow from the Enlightenment? In other words, if a figure like Jesus were to appear in a world that was like ours, had developed in exactly the same way as ours had but without Christianity, what religion would he give us? The country into which Simón and David come as refugees is recognisably of our world (it contains tennis, and Don Quixote, and hot and cold running water), and yet its mental structures are clearly different: philosophy is taught as a simple Platonic matter of thinking about the chair behind the chair; the people live in a Corbynistic hellscape in which work, food and shelter are given to them for the asking.
Against this mechanistic background, David appears as a disruptive influence. Coetzee emphasises the fact that religious thought comes into being when the order of the world is broken. One of the key images throughout the trilogy is the fight between the ideas of numbers and mathematics: ‘I know all the numbers,’ the five-year-old David says in the first novel. ‘Do you want to hear them? I know 134 and I know 7 and I know’ – he draws a deep breath – ‘4623551 and I know 888 and I know 92 and I know –’. Such individual attention, which sees these elements as worthy of consideration in themselves rather than simply as tools to obtain results, is the basis of David’s childish thinking and, we are invited to think, of the religious conception of the world.
These three novels as a whole, then, present us with the ur-myths of a religion, the record of a life that might develop into a transformative example for the people of the world it describes. Over the years Coetzee has increasingly written in parables: the decisive turn came with his novel-cum-essay collection Elizabeth Costello (2003) and the acceptance speech he gave when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in the same year. The Death of Jesus is the culmination of Coetzee’s largest experiment so far along these lines, and it is an effective and fascinating piece of fiction. Whether you think it has any value beyond the paradoxes and parallels it gives us, or is simply further proof that the reason Coetzee and Coelho are shelved alongside one another in libraries is not simple alphabetical coincidence, will depend on your tolerance for this mode of writing.
The Death of Jesus does, however, contain points at which Coetzee’s undeniable skill manifests itself, most notably in his ventriloquism of David’s voice as the Son of God/Son of Man made evident in a ten-year-old. When David is talking about a football match, he could be any pedantic pre-teen: ‘I said and. I said we scored a good goal and we scored a bad goal. And isn’t the same as plus.’ He might also, within the context of the book, be divine.