- - Thursday, December 21, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE SCHOOL DAYS OF JESUS

By J.M. Coetzee

Viking, $27, 260 pages

J.M. Coetzee’s 2013 “The Childhood of Jesus” is a tale about a man, Simon, and a small boy, David, whom he encountered on a ship taking them from somewhere to a new country. They are given new names; they learn Spanish, the language of the new country; their memories are forgotten.

“[D]o you not remember because it didn’t happen or because you have forgotten. We will never know for sure. That is the way things are. That is what we must live with. [F]rom the day when we arrive in this life we put our former existence behind us. We forget it. But not entirely. Of our former existence certain remnants persist: not all memories in the usual sense of the word but what we can call shadows of memories. Then, as we become habituated to our new life, even those shadows fade, until we have forgotten our origins entirely and accept that what our eyes see is the only life there is.”

David lost the paper on which his mother’s name was written, and Simon undertakes to protect him and to find his mother in the new country. Simon finds work as a stevedore. Everyone is kind and helpful. When Simon sees Ines on a tennis court, he is convinced she is David’s lost mother, and he gives her the boy. They become an uneasy family unit.

David is an extraordinary child. He has taught himself to read using a child’s version of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.” At school, he is uncooperative and troublesome. The authorities insist on sending him to a special school in another town. To avoid this, the three flee from town.

“The School Days of Jesus” opens as Simon, Ines and David arrive in the town of Estrella, where Simon and Ines find work and shelter picking fruit, then olives, on a farm owned by three sisters. When the harvest ends, they move into town, where Simon does odd jobs including delivering advertisements by bicycle.

There is no affection between Ines and Simon, bound only by their love for David. They fear they will be traced if they send David to public school. When the sisters who own the farm agree to pay David’s tuition, he is enrolled in the private Academy of Dance where a regular curriculum is supposedly taught as well as dance.

The Academy is run by tall, beautiful, elegant Ana Magdalena. Her husband, Juan Sebastian, is a musician. David is happy at the school and forms a strong attachment to Ana Magdalena. He dances gracefully and quickly adapts to the philosophy of the Academy, which “is dedicated to guiding the souls of our students to bringing them in accord with the great underlying movement of the universe, or, as we prefer to say, the dance of the universe. Yes, here in the Academy we dance, not in a graceless, carnal, or disorderly way, but body and soul together, so as to bring the numbers to life.”

David becomes demanding and self-centered. Yet Juan Sebastian tells Simon that “Young David is an exceptional child. The word I use for him is integral. He is integral in a way that other children are not. Nothing can be taken away from him. Nothing can be added. Who or what you or I believe him to be is of no importance.”

When Ana Magdalena is brutally murdered by her lover, Dmitri, the boorish janitor at the museum next to the Academy, everything falls apart: the school is closed and Simon must deal with David’s unhappiness and his affection for Dmitri, and the latter’s request for Simon’s understanding. Dmitri is tried and sentenced by judges pleading for him to excuse his action.

Dmitri decides he must be punished severely, then reneges on that punishment. Ines will find a tutor for David. Simon believes “In our family, I am the stupid one, the blind one, the danceless one. Ines leads. David leads. The dog leads. I stumble along behind, hoping for the day to come when my eyes will be opened and I will behold the world as it really is, including the numbers, in all their glory.”

The conflict between the cerebral and the passionate is a theme running through both novels. Simon tells David that “Passion can’t be explained, it can only be experienced. More exactly it has to be experienced from the inside before it can be understood from the outside.” Simon is a rational man, curious about the lack of passion in his new world, yet yearning for something beyond his own intellectual order.

And so Simon turns to Juan Sebastian’s music and the reopened Academy to take dancing lessons, his first steps toward something beyond his current existence, a chance that he too will be able to call the numbers down from the stars.

The analogy to the biblical story is there, but Mr. Coetzee’s intriguing novel raises many contemporary questions: what constitutes a family; what does it mean to be a parent; what is the immigrant’s experience; can the past ever be forgotten; how does an outsider fit into an established society; what role does passion play in life. “What is it that we lack when we lack nothing, when we are sufficient unto ourselves? What is it that we miss when we are not in love?”

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.


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