The Schooldays of Jesus by JM Coetzee

The naked emperor…

😦 😦

the schooldays of jesusAfter fleeing from Novilla at the end of the last book, Simón, Davíd and Inés arrive in Estrella. While there, Simón will agonise endlessly over how to get a decent education for Davíd, Inés will get a job in a dress shop, and Davíd will become even more obnoxious than he was in The Childhood of Jesus. The pseudo-religious symbolism will be replaced by a load of pseudo-mumbo-jumbo about numbers. And the hollowness of book 1 will turn into a vacuous vacuum in this one.

When I slated The Childhood of Jesus for being essentially empty of all meaning, many Coetzee fans told me not to give up on him – they assured me that really he was a wonderful, intelligent writer with plenty to say. So I gave him a second chance. I find it hard to believe, but this book is actually even more meaningless and shallow than the previous one. If ever there were a case of the emperor’s new clothes, this is it – Mr Coetzee is running naked through the streets, hoping people will still think he’s dressed in robes of gold and purple. Ironic really, since if this book does have a point, it is that the people of this strange country in which our tedious trio have washed up seem willing to worship Davíd despite him being an obnoxious and rather unintelligent spoiled little brat, who frankly should have been sent to bed with no supper at the end of chapter 1, book 1, and not allowed out till he apologised for existing.

Since this is a sequel, the following paragraphs will contain some spoilers for the first book.

emperor-no-clothesAt the end of The Childhood, it was left with Davíd and his surrogate parents fleeing Novilla because the authorities there wanted to put Davíd in some kind of institution, considering his behaviour disruptive. The suggestion, subtly given in the title, was that Davíd was some kind of Messiah, perhaps even actually Jesus, and as he fled he began to pick up followers who recognised his frequently touted but never shown exceptionality. This second book promptly drops all that, and drops other “important” symbolism from book 1 too, such as Inés, the virgin mother in The Childhood, now apparently being a sexually experienced woman (without having had sex in the interim I might add – miraculous!).

Simón, devoted to Davíd and convinced of his exceptionalism in book 1, is now finding that the child is simply difficult – something I feel the rest of us had worked out long before. Davíd shows no affection for these adults who have cared for him and promptly demands to become a boarder at his new school, where they are teaching the children how to call down numbers from the stars via dance. (That sentence alone should surely be enough of a warning to avoid the book at all costs.) Davíd instead gives his love to a weird caretaker, whose main attraction seems to be that he shows the schoolboys lewd pictures of women. But things all go horribly wrong and we have some jejune philosophising on justice and rehabilitation. After avoiding the overt but silly religious symbolism of the first book throughout nearly all of this one, Coetzee then reverts to what must surely be mockery by having Davíd offering redemption if only people would believe in him.

JM Coetzee
JM Coetzee

It is readable because Coetzee is a good storyteller. He manages to create a constant impression that he’s just about to say something meaningful, which keeps the reader turning the pages in hope. But sadly he has nothing meaningful to say, so he fills the space with a lot of pseudo-philosophical absurdity, occasionally humorous but always with a kind of supercilious sneer hidden not very thoroughly between the lines. When discussing book 1 with a fellow reviewer, I joked that Coetzee was probably having a good laugh at all the thousands of people vainly trying to find a coherent meaning in the novel – the joke’s on me for being daft enough to read book 2! Ugh! Needless to say, it was longlisted for the 2016 Booker… an institution always willing to see gorgeous robes where none exist, so long as the emperor has a well-known name.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

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41 thoughts on “The Schooldays of Jesus by JM Coetzee

    • Very wise! I couldn’t resist the temptation to see if this one gave any meaning to the last one – I fear not. Ah, well, another author who seems to be living off his reputation…

  1. I have a feeling someone passed you the Cool-Aid, and being the wise superhero you are, slapped it away and said, “No more drink for me!” Haha. You warned the rest of us. Dare I say, I’m finishing a book I think you would love? No Cool-Aid from me, FF, I promise… A Man Called Ove. It has a grumpy man and his cat. Who doesn’t love both?

    • Haha! I should have poured the Cool-Aid over young David’s head – he deserves it! Now, that’s interesting – I’ve seen lots of praise for that one, but have always avoided it because the first line of the blurb is “Perfect for fans of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” – which I hated with a vengeance! Did you read it – and if so, do you agree with the comparison?

      • No, I didn’t read that one. But sometimes those comparisons are way off. Like Girl on the Train was in NO way close to Gone Girl, but that didn’t stop publishers from touting that! Actually it took me a while to get into A Man Called Ove. It’s not my usual fare, however something hooked me enough, and as I continued to read, I liked it more and more. Something tells me you would too, but I’d hate to be wrong! 😉

        • Yes, I wish they wouldn’t make these comparisons, but I suppose it must work as a marketing strategy. I have added it to the wishlist since we do seem to have a pretty big crossover in books we enjoy. It may be ages before I get to it though. I’m still trying to clear all these review books, which would be easier if more didn’t keep arriving… 😉

  2. What? Even? Is this?! Calling down numbers from stars via dance – what sort of school teaches that?! I saw the title and thought it might be fairly interesting, but it just sounds like a load of old nonsense to me. Hence the Booker, I suppose. Great review, though, FF – I love it when you don’t like a book!!

    • I know!!! They should have put that on the blurb and then I’d have known to avoid it! Load of old nonsense just about sums it up – I’m thinking he’s run out of things to say and thinks if he just makes the books full of strange references people will be fooled into thinking they’re just too dumb to understand it. Haha! It’s funny how much quicker it is to write a rip than a glowing review! 😉

  3. Hmmm….*Thinking, ‘though not very hard*…nope. Not for me. Nor is the first one. Nor is any book about David’s further adventures. I’m very glad you’ve cherry-picked for us, FictionFan. And Lucy’s right; this is a great review, for which thanks.

  4. The storytelling might be delightful, but the topic here seems in very bad taste. I shudder at books that mock people’s beliefs — whether religious or otherwise — so I won’t be wasting my time on this one. Thanks for the heads-up, though!

    • So do I, Debbie. And though I’m genuinely not sure what exactly he’s trying to say, there is a feeling of mockery of religion in both of them and that always puts me off. I don’t mind people making a serious argument either for or against religion, but mockery really annoys me. And I agree – there is a feeling of bad taste about the whole thing…

  5. (Another of your reviews I haven’t read – it has been waiting for a while in the TBR – I don’t know whether your star rating alarms or encourages me, as I can’t read the review to find out why. It might be I shall rate it high because what you don’t like I do, but it might be that the reasons you rate it low are reasons I might, too – in which case it wouldn’t matter as I shan’t review it on my blog anyway) At the moment, a veil is drawn over all…………..except – I’ve just spotted Debbie’s comment……..re the fact that belief is mocked. Not sure I’m going to enjoy this, if that is the reason also for your downrating! I shall have to try and forget I read Debbie’s comment too. Mind you, SO many books a waiting that its perfectly possible by the time I get to this I WILL have forgotten!

    • Well, I shall try not to say anything to influence you one way or the other, but I did wonder from your comment – do you know this is a sequel to an earlier book, The Childhood of Jesus? I’m wondering now whether this one really stands alone – I reckon it would have a better chance of working for you if you at least knew the outline of what happened in the last book. If you haven’t read it and don’t want to (the first book, I mean), I’d be happy to give you a brief rundown of “the story so far”, if you’d like – trying to keep my own judgements out of it… you can have a think and let me know.

  6. So you enjoyed it then? Is there a third on the way? I adored your review and the comments about David being sent to bed at the end of chapter one, almost makes me want to read all about him just to see quite how much I’d hate it, sadly life is too short for such frivolity 😏

    • Haha! Loved it! How could you tell? Well the horrible little child is still only about eight, so he could write at least another ten books before he reaches adulthood – can’t wait! 😉 I suspect you’d hate this one as much as I did – life is indeed too short!! Grrr…

  7. Thoroughly agree with your final comments regarding the Man Booker. I started reading the long listed books about twenty years ago (to read outside my comfort zone) but have now reduced it to the shortlist. These days too many are ponderous, miserable and selfconsciously literary, of course there are some real gems there too.
    I had already decided to give these two Coetzee books a miss. Christ Recrucified and The Last Temptation, both by Nikos Kazantzakis, are outstanding books which drawn on the life of Christ and much much more. Forget about the film version of The Last Temptation – a load of utter tripe.

    • Most years I can’t even face half the books on the shortlist – yes, miserable and self-consciously literary just about sums a lot of them up. Of course I like a lot of them, but rather despite the Booker than because of it. And I get angry every year about the great books they don’t list…

      Ah, thank you, I’ll look into those – an author I haven’t come across at all before. In fact, I didn’t realise the film was even based on a book – I’ve always avoided the film because it sounded pretty awful…

  8. You’re a wonderful person – reading and reviewing such books so the rest of us don’t have to. I’d already marked this down as the last of the Booker 2016 longlist I’d ever read (in fact I gave up after number 4); it’s good to have confirmation that I made the right choice!

    • Haha! I live to serve! Yes, it was a particularly uninspiring longlist this year, I thought… so actually this book fitted in quite well. 😉 I definitely think you made the right decision – sometimes when I don’t like a book I know I’m swimming against the tide, but this one seems to be getting more critical than positive reviews…

  9. I tend to be both wary and interested in any novel with a Christian/Messiah overtone like this but I hated Disgrace so much that I’d rather avoid Coetzee’s books all together. After reading your review, I feel comfortable with that decision 🙂

    • Even as an atheist, I’m wary – I find the whole subject of religion fascinating but it has to be done with a degree of respect. Can’t stand the type of atheist who rubbishes other people’s sincerely held beliefs. With this one, I’m not sure it has a meaning, but there’s a sneering quality to it that I disliked… David is so un-Christ-like it feels like mockery. Not one I’d be pushing people to read!

  10. It’s been a while since I read this author, but if I remember correctly, he tends to write sexual relationships that remind me of Humbert Humbert. Like, they’re totally about power over women, but the relationship is okay because a man says so.

    • Now that’s interesting because, although this one was OK from that perspective, in the last one I said it felt very misogynistic – in fact, I said the female characters were little more than walking wombs and repositories for male fantasies. I kind of let him off the hook because I hadn’t read any of his other books, and couldn’t decide if he was doing it deliberately to show the society he was portarying as misogynistic – some kind of reference to the Old Testament, maybe – but if you’ve noticed similar things in previous books then I don’t feel so generous any more…

      • Yeah, something doesn’t sit right with me when I read this guy. It’s like he’s depositing fantasies on characters and then saying, “it’s just fiction!” But, if I also remember this correctly, many of his male protagonists seem semi-autobiographical… Ick.

        • I certainly don’t feel much desire to read more of his stuff after these two. Not just for the treatment of female characters, but for the sneering quality of them – I never like it when I feel an author is sneering, either at his readers or his characters.

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