cover image The Schooldays of Jesus

The Schooldays of Jesus

J.M. Coetzee. Viking, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-0-7352-2266-3

The temperature rises ever so slightly in Nobel winner Coetzee’s (The Childhood of Jesus) latest, the second installment of his wintry gospel that beguiles as often as it numbs. Coetzee’s fable continues as Símon—stolid, devoted—and Inés—reticent, passionless—have taken their ward, Davíd, and fled Novilla, the stultifying socialist city whose nightlife (which consists of philosophical lectures) is as flavorless as its dietary staple (bean paste). The nontraditional family begins yet another new life, now in a provincial town (in an unspecified country), Estrella, in “the year of the census.” Davíd, the “magistral” child whose true name remains a mystery, enrolls in a dance academy whose instructors espouse mystical notions about embodied Platonic forms: “To bring the numbers down from where they reside, to allow them to manifest themselves in our midst, to give them body, we rely on the dance.” Símon initially views this as “harmless nonsense,” an attitude that widens the gulf between him and his inquisitive charge. He responds to Davíd’s ceaseless questions with “dry little homilies” that seldom satisfy the otherworldly child. These Socratic sallies can grate rather than illuminate, and the novel’s Biblical allusions can seem more coy than revelatory. In The Childhood of Jesus, Don Quixote’s visionary gusto inspired young Davíd; here, there are darker, Dostoyevskian drives at play. Davíd is attracted to exuberant characters who, unlike his guardians, flout conventional morality. Enter Dmitri, a museum attendant infatuated with Davíd’s ethereally beautiful dance instructor, to provide a welcome, and violent, jolt of immeasurable passion to the novel’s measured world. [em](Feb.) [/em]