In his essay “The Storyteller” (1936), philosopher Walter Benjamin asserts that “every real story” must contain “openly or covertly something useful,” and that any teller of tales worth his salt should have “counsel for his readers”—that is, some advice and encouragement about how to make one’s way safely through the world. “Counsel woven into the fabric of real life,” Benjamin writes, “is wisdom.”
Regrettably, J. M. Coetzee’s The Schooldays of Jesus offers readers nothing but folly. A sequel to The Childhood of Jesus (2013), Coetzee’s most recent novel picks up where the last one left off—in a baffling, unnamed country where refugees arrive by boat, and are given new names, randomly assigned to residences (some humble and some extravagant), and gruffly encouraged to start a new life. Also, for reasons that are never really explained but may have something to do with Don Quixote, new arrivals are forced to communicate in beginner’s Spanish. All memories of their old lives—and apparently their old languages—have somehow been stripped away in the journey. Two books into what I fear may be a trilogy, I have no idea whether this country is a metaphor for life, the afterlife, or something else entirely.
On the bright side, the capital city of Novilla—where the boats come in—turns out to be a kind of colorless socialist utopia, and the protagonist, Simón, quickly finds work at the docks. The food in Novilla may be bland, but the job provides him with opportunities for manly camaraderie and endless philosophical speculation with his fellow stevedores. It also allows him to support the ragtag family that he assembles almost accidentally upon arrival. This family consists of Davíd, an ostensibly extraordinary but in practice extremely tiresome little boy who became separated from his mother on the boat and whom Simón has vowed to protect, and Inés, a haughty woman whom Simón conscripts to be Davíd’s mother. When the first book ends, Davíd has run afoul of the educational authorities and the three must flee in a cramped car to start a new new life in the distant town of Estrella.
The Schooldays of Jesus opens with them stepping out of the car. In terms of plausibility and interest, the plot does not improve on the first novel. Stubborn, willful Davíd is soon enrolled in the nearby Academy of Dance, his tuition conveniently underwritten by three aged spinster sisters who recognize his gifts. There, the husband-and-wife team who run the school take him under their wing, and manage to tame, occasionally, an otherwise spoiled, headstrong, and rude little boy. After Juan Sebastián and Ana Magdalena Arroyo impart to him their occult views about “the noble numbers” and the “ant numbers,” the reader is subjected to two of what are surely not the most boring or misjudged school concerts in the history of the world, but are still very bad. Mostly, they are bad because Coetzee appears to want us to take the “noble numbers” business seriously. In one scene, Simón sits mesmerized as Davíd “dances” the number Seven:
As if the earth has lost its downward power, the boy seems to shed all bodily weight, to become pure light.... The numbers are integral and sexless, said Ana Magdalena; their ways of loving and conjugating are beyond our comprehension. Because of that, they can be called down only by sexless beings. Well, the being who dances before them is neither child nor man, boy nor girl; he would even say neither body nor spirit. Eyes shut, mouth open, rapt, Davíd floats through the steps with such fluid grace that time stands still. Too caught up even to breathe, he, Simón, whispers to himself: Remember this! If ever in the future you are tempted to doubt, remember this!
The dance of Seven ends as abruptly as it began. The flute falls silent. With chest heaving slightly, the boy faces Arroyo. “Do you want me to dance Eleven?”
Thankfully, Señor Arroyo declines.