The Atom School

Theo Tait

  • The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee
    Harvill Secker, 260 pp, £17.99, August 2016, ISBN 978 1 911215 35 6

‘Growing detachment from the world is of course the experience of many writers as they grow older, grow cooler or colder,’ JC, the authorial surrogate in J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year (2007), writes.

The texture of their prose becomes thinner, their treatment of character and action more schematic. The syndrome is usually ascribed to a waning of creative power; it is no doubt connected with the attenuation of physical powers, above all the power of desire. Yet from the inside the same development may bear a quite different interpretation: as a liberation, a clearing of the mind to take on more important tasks.

He goes on to discuss the classic example, Tolstoy, and his supposed decline from the panoramic vitality of War and Peace to the ‘aridity of the late short fiction’. Yet to the author himself, JC suggests, the evolution must have seemed very different: ‘Far from declining, he must have felt, he was ridding himself of the shackles that had enslaved him to appearances, enabling him to face directly the one question that truly engaged his soul: how to live.’

Coetzee is now two novels into his own cranky late Tolstoyan phase. The prose is certainly thin; the action and character schematic; the fictional world detached from everyday experience. Yet these books do not seem to face big questions directly, or take on important tasks. Quite the contrary: Coetzee’s career seems to be moving off in the direction of mystification and whimsy. It is disorienting. One of the hallmarks of his writing over the years, one of the most appealing things about it, has been its clarity – alienated, almost mathematical. Thoughts are pursued remorselessly to their logical end, appearances ruthlessly penetrated. In Disgrace (1999), he examined the position of white South Africans after apartheid with such unforgiving rigour that many mistook the novel for an argument, and felt compelled to take issue with it (‘South Africa is not only a place of rape,’ Thabo Mbeki remarked). In Youth (2002), the second part of a quasi-autobiographical trilogy, we are told that the book’s protagonist, John, ‘can see no reason why people need to dance’:

Dancing makes sense only when it is interpreted as something else, something that people prefer not to admit. That something else is the real thing: the dance is merely a cover. Inviting a girl to dance stands for inviting her to have intercourse; accepting the invitation stands for agreeing to have intercourse; and dancing is a miming and foreshadowing of intercourse. So obvious are the correspondences that he wonders why people bother with dancing at all. Why the dressing up, why the ritual motions; why the huge sham?

Strangely enough, The Schooldays of Jesus is a novel about learning to dance, a subject imbued with great significance. In its predecessor, The Childhood of Jesus (2013), a man and a boy arrive in an unnamed country, in a city called Novilla. They have travelled there from across the sea, via a ‘camp’ in the desert, where they have learned Spanish and been assigned new names: Simón and David. The man is old and people assume that the boy is his grandson. ‘Not my grandson, not my son,’ he explains. ‘But I am responsible for him.’ Novilla seems to be partly a spiritual state. Everyone there has made the same journey, by ship, and they can’t remember their pasts. They have all been ‘washed clean’ of previous ties. It is also a kind of socialist utopia, a specifically Coetzeean utopia. There is work for everyone who wants it. The stevedores with whom Simón works are ‘good men: hardworking, friendly, helpful’. Vegetarianism is mandatory; football is free: ‘It’s a game. You don’t need to pay to watch a game.’ The citizens enthusiastically attend philosophy classes at night. Plato’s theory of forms seems to be a popular preoccupation: ‘We were asking ourselves,’ says the teacher, ‘what unity lies behind all the diversity, what it is that makes all tables tables, all chairs chairs.’

Simón struggles with this enlightened society. It denies his ordinary appetites: his desire for sex, which his female acquaintances think is baffling and absurd; and for meat, rather than bread and flavourless ‘bean paste’ (people in Novilla are encouraged to ‘starve the dog of hunger’). ‘Everyone I meet is so decent, so kindly, so well-intentioned,’ he complains to a local woman. ‘No one swears or gets angry. No one gets drunk. No one even raises his voice. You live on a diet of bread and water and bean paste and you claim to be filled. How can that be, humanly speaking? Are you lying, even to yourselves?’ His irrational certainties eventually lead him into conflict with the social order. His chief task, he knows, is ‘finding the boy’s mother’. And he decides that Inés, a bad-tempered and unsympathetic woman whom he spies playing tennis, is the one: ‘his mother, his natural mother’. He can’t explain why, but ‘it is so, it is as simple as that.’ She appears to concur. Together, they assume parental duties and parental concerns. At school, David is disruptive. This is partly a feature of his obliquely messianic role; there are regular references to the Gospels. David presents his cheek to be slapped; he claims that he can raise the dead. He is resistant to authority, and to normal teaching methods. When ordered to write ‘I must tell the truth’ on the blackboard, he writes instead: ‘I am the truth. Yo soy la verdad.’ Eventually, psychologists are involved. The final passage of the novel sees Simón, Inés and David fleeing the educational authorities, in the direction of the town of Estrella.

The Childhood of Jesus was greeted with respectful bewilderment, and its sequel is more bewildering still – not least because, within Coetzee’s already opaque fictional world, the co-ordinates seem to have shifted. The utopian aspects of Novilla don’t seem to have carried over to Estrella. Simón is forced to take a job less redolent of the dignity of labour, delivering advertising flyers on a bicycle. Inés finds work in a boutique called Modas Modernas. Vegetarianism seems to be the exception, not the rule. In many respects, Estrella could be a normal provincial town in a peaceful part of Latin America in, say, the 1970s: there are children’s entertainers, and waffle machines, and lingerie models offering personal services, and lakeside weekend spots with glass-bottomed boats. The main residual oddities are the continued references to the inhabitants’ forgotten past lives, ‘our former existence’, and the town’s eccentric education system. As well as the normal state schools – which Simón and Inés are determined to avoid – there is an Academy of Singing, an Academy of Dance and an Atom School where ‘they watch the atoms through a microscope, doing whatever it is that atoms do.’

Where in the previous novel Simón was an enabler of David’s otherworldly inclinations, here he becomes, in his own eyes, a ‘sane, rational person who offers the boy a sane, rational elucidation of why things are the way they are’. David asks a lot of questions. ‘But was I born out of Inés’s tummy?’ ‘What is filial obedience?’ ‘Are you a good example, Simón?’ ‘Why is staying alive more important than anything?’ In response, Simón offers what he calls ‘dry little homilies’ that David seems to find increasingly unsatisfactory. Simón, for his part, finds the child difficult: ‘The truth is, he has tired us out with his wilfulness, his mother and me,’ he complains. ‘He is like a bulldozer. He has flattened us.’ The problem becomes still more acute when, with the assistance of three elderly sisters who take an interest in him, David is sent to the Academy of Dance.

The Academy is ‘devoted to the training of the soul through music and dance’. It is run by Juan Sebastian Arroyo, a philosopher and musician, and his pale, beautiful wife, Ana Magdalena. The children are taught to dance in such a way as to ‘bring the numbers down … from where they live among the aloof stars’. These, Ana Magdalena explains, are the ‘noble’ numbers, the true numbers – not the ‘ant numbers’, the simulacra that we use in arithmetic or household accounts. To the parents who complain that the children are not being taught basic maths, she declares: ‘In our Academy we do not teach the law of the ant … We do not want to turn your children into ants.’ Simón, in keeping with his new role, is disturbed by this ‘mystical rubbish’. He is also alarmed by the presence around the Academy of Dmitri, a rumpled, dissolute museum guard openly infatuated with Ana Magdalena.

I don’t pretend to understand this novel, any more than I understand why Coetzee always writes ‘he, Simón’ even when it is perfectly clear to whom the pronoun refers. One can, however, point to a number of explanatory contexts. Towards the end of the book, a philosopher visits the Academy to give a speech about ‘Metros the measurer’, supposedly a legendary counterpart of Prometheus who, instead of bringing fire to man, brought metra, units of measurement. His arrival, the philosopher says, marks ‘a turning point in human history: the moment when we collectively gave up the old way of apprehending the world, the unthinking, animal way, when we abandoned as futile the quest to know things in themselves, and began instead to see the world through its metra’.

This allowed us to discover the laws of science, but the Arroyos argue that it came at a terrible cost: by subjecting them to his system, Metros turned noble numbers into ant numbers; only through dance can we apprehend the world in the true prelapsarian way. The Arroyos seem to regard David as special because he has an instinctive aversion to ant numbers: he won’t obey the teachers’ rules for addition and subtraction. ‘He is deficient in a certain basic mental capacity,’ one frustrated tutor suggests, ‘in this case the capacity to classify objects on the basis of similarity … We do not need to see each tree as an individual entity, as animals do, we can see it as an example of the class tree. It also makes mathematics possible.’ So we seem to be back again at Plato’s theory of forms.

This theme reflects a long-running strain of anti-rationalism, or extra-rationalism, in Coetzee’s work: as when, for instance, the eponymous protagonist of Elizabeth Costello (2003) enjoins us to use our imaginative sympathy to think (or be) like a bat; or when her sister the nun repudiates ‘the monster of reason, mechanical reason’. In his recent exchange of letters with Paul Auster, Coetzee blamed ‘the quantificatory spirit’ for the financial crash of 2008, and suggested that if we are all suddenly poorer because ‘certain numbers changed’, perhaps we should change the numbers back so that they more accurately reflect ‘our well-stocked larders and our tight roofs and our hinterland full of productive factories and farms’. But what is an amusing thought experiment in a letter to a friend becomes problematic when repurposed, at great length, into fictional form.

Running in parallel to these ideas is a plot, largely concerning Dmitri, which drives the second half of the book. It resembles a sketched outline of a Dostoevsky story: Dmitri is ‘a man of passion’, wild and ultimately murderous; Simón, by contrast, is no longer the homme moyen sensuel of the earlier novel, but a ‘dry old stick’, ploddingly rational, with ‘un corazón de cuero’, as Dmitri puts it, ‘a heart of leather’. Again, this reflects a Coetzeean preoccupation. From Youth to Diary of a Bad Year, the authorial figures berate themselves for being cold and passionless, and thus excluding themselves from a fundamental realm of life. All this is served up with a steady drip of canonical allusions to be pored over: as well as Dostoevsky and Plato, there is Don Quixote, Heinrich von Kleist, Bach and, of course, the Gospels. David is preoccupied with whether people ‘recognise’ him; towards the book’s climax, such as it is, there is a census, an ‘orgy of measurement’.

Clearly, The Schooldays of Jesus is allegorical: it constantly demands to be interpreted, even if it isn’t clear how. But it lacks the memorable invented worlds, the suggestiveness and the partial decipherability of Coetzee’s early allegories, Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) and Life and Times of Michael K (1983). It is a novel of ideas, but its central line of thinking seems both abstruse and absurdly generalised, compared to, say, the seething and bewilderingly clever Elizabeth Costello. It is sometimes said that Coetzee is a narrow and joyless writer who has made a trademark of his own limitations: ‘a pedant who dabbles in fiction’, as he put it himself. ‘People assume it’s the gloomy buggers that are the serious ones,’ Martin Amis complained a few years back. ‘Coetzee, for instance – his whole style is predicated on transmitting absolutely no pleasure … I read one and I thought, he’s got no talent.’ It ought not to be necessary, at this point in Coetzee’s distinguished career, even to consider this point of view. His prose, though certainly gloomy and austere, is a thing of wonder: penetratingly intelligent, visionary at times, full of subtle modulations of thought and rhythm, often funny in its wintry way. But his current direction seems almost designed to give ammunition to the doubters. From the reader’s point of view, The Schooldays of Jesus does not feed the dog of hunger. The prose is dry and studiedly unremarkable. There is hardly a line in it that doesn’t seem bloodless and diagrammatic, like its fictional world. Perhaps most worrying of all is the question of how long they might go on, these Jesus novels. David was five in the first; by the end of the second, he is still only seven, in ant years anyway.