When I first heard that J M Coetzee’s follow-up to The Childhood of Jesus would be The Schooldays of Jesus, I did momentarily wonder if it was a spoof rather than a sequel, an attempt to infuse Coetzee’s work with the unlikely spirit of Adrian Mole – The Secret Diary of Jesus, anyone? In fact, not only does the novel exist, but it follows directly from its predecessor with Simon, Ines and David, arriving in Estrella where, at the end of Childhood, they plan a “new life”.
Initially wary of discovery, they find casual work on a farm picking fruit. David’s schooling quickly becomes a concern:
“David went to school in Novilla…It wasn’t a success. He didn’t have good teachers. He is a naturally clever child. He found the pace in the classroom too slow. We had to remove him and educate him at home.”
David is clever, but he can also be obstinate. When he is offered Maths tuition he refuse to cooperate:
“Because his way you first have to make yourself small. You have to make yourself small as a pea, then as small as a pea inside a pea, and then a pea inside a pea inside a pea. Then you can do his numbers when you are small small small small small.”
Eventually the three sisters who own the farm propose that he be sent to one of the two academies in the town, the Academy of Dance (the other is of Singing) and offer to pay his fees. There, according to his teacher, Ana Magdalena:
“First comes the dance. All else is secondary. All else follows later.”
It is through dance that they learn numbers, which in turn have an astrological aspect – “You close your eyes while you dance and you can see the stars in your head.” As dancing is largely visual, the reader must take this on trust – rather as Simon, whom David refuses to dance for, must:
“He thinks you won’t understand. He thinks you will make fun of him.”
David becomes infatuated with the Dance Academy, and Simon becomes less important to him. Part of that infatuation is directed towards Dmitri, a caretaker at the nearby museum who is frequently to be found at the Academy, and whom Simon dislikes. Ines, too, is colder with Simon (Simon is not David’s father, and, though Ines claims to be his mother, this is based on Simon’s insistence that he saw them together when they arrived as refugees; like all refugees they have no memory of the time before).
The key question (as with Childhood) is what on earth are we meant to make of it all? It reads like allegory, albeit one where the key has been mislaid. Should we identify David with Jesus? It is made clear that David is not his real name, simply one assigned to him on arrival – and also one inextricably linked with Jesus. Simon and Ines also have Biblical connotations: Simon, one of the apostles, and also the man who carried the cross for Jesus, meaning ‘he has heard’ (which might be particularly applicable given the novel’s conclusion); Ines, the Spanish version of Agnes, a martyred Saint, meaning ‘chaste’, also appropriate for her passionless character. Coetzee can’t resist dropping further hints into the narrative: David, when asked what he wants to be, saying he “wanted to be a lifesaver”; his declaration that he doesn’t “want to be human” – though this in a conversation where he says he wants to be “the kind who takes” rather than gives (of course, even this can be interpreted Biblically).
The use of Jesus is clearly intended to point to something exceptional in David, but I suspect we are also meant to question this. David is a striking character – Simon describes him as being “like a bulldozer” – but is he really that unusual, or is it simply that Simon patiently indulges his questions and expends more energy on educating him than he does on his own life? It seems unlikely that Coetzee is suggesting that dancing is the future of education, but he is certainly questioning current pedagogy. In a lecture delivered at the novels’ end on Metros (likened to Prometheus, but in fact an invention) is portrayed as the discoverer of measurement:
“Were he and his heirs guilty of abolishing reality and putting a simulacrum in its place?”
Coetzee seems to be suggesting that some kind of transcendence is necessary in education; that we should go beyond facts and figures.
Schooldays are therefore central to the novel; but so is one of Coetzee’s, and religion’s, key concerns: punishment and forgiveness. Having won David’s trust, Dmitri commits a terrible crime. David finds it impossible to condemn him. This is an area Coetzee has explored before, particularly in relation to South Africa, but here he does so relentlessly as Dmitri literally refuses to be forgotten.
The novel’s conclusion suggests a shift has taken place; that Simon is now learning from David. When Childhood was released some reviewers complained that David was not very Christ-like, but, even if we are to take the title literally, this surely misses the point: this is the childhood which shapes Jesus, though is suspect Jesus is shorthand for spiritual enlightenment rather than orthodox Christianity. It is the philosophical journey of a child. And, like all childhoods, it has more questions than answers.