This is a ridiculous book. I don’t mean it deserves mockery, but that this...is the final book in a trilogy characterised by absurdity ... It’s in the second half of the book, approaching David’s death and afterwards, that The Death of Jesus achieves its purpose: to conclude the trilogy with force and heart. Through all three books Simón and David look for answers, but Coetzee is asking us to read the trilogy—to read all books—to seek meaning, rather than find it; to understand, paraphrasing TS Eliot, that art communicates before it is understood ... So this is a ridiculous book, full of unexplained developments, unrealistic dialogue and overcooked analogies. Like Don Quixote, it is a fiction about fiction. But many great books are ridiculous, and if The Death of Jesus strikes you in the right place, then you will read its cool, dry final sentences—as I did—with tears in your eyes.
It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Coetzee making radical skepticism about the ontological status of numbers and the realness of reality central to the message of God’s appointed messenger...You could call him a novelist of ideas, but also a philosopher working in fiction ... Many of Coetzee’s recent novels have the stripped-down quality of philosophical fable. His prose has never been ornamental, but in his later years it has grown particularly spare. This is not unpleasant; rather, it’s disorienting, then hypnotic. When Coetzee withholds back story, the reader must learn to tolerate mystery. Conversations between Simón and David have the purity of Socratic dialogue, though with an anti-Platonic twist.
... These are strange novels, easily guyed as clumsy allegories, full of sententious philosophizing, deliberately flatly written, too easily claiming significance through their allusion to the Biblical story. I can only report that I have found them, despite the bafflement, full of truth, irreducible, tearfully moving to read.
In recent years, the project that has consumed Coetzee’s attention is a trilogy of deadpan, present-tense, fable-like fantasies, at once overtly philosophical and utterly cryptic, that culminates in his extraordinary new novel The Death of Jesus ... The Death of Jesus, the best in the series, and the shortest, serves as a reply to the previous book’s extremities ... The novel’s last seven chapters dispel once and for all the suspicion that Coetzee has been simply, or only, playing some kind of game, or mounting a needlessly elaborate homage to a literary tradition powered by the riches of obsessive non-rational thought.
As he passed his 70th birthday, J. M. Coetzee...embarked on a highly atypical series of works. His previous 14 novels, all shorter than 300 pages, possessed a spare, compressed intensity of language and design. Now he has completed a trilogy...that sprawls to more than 750. It is ruminative, meandering, and open-ended. Its prose is flat; its mood is often slack. It is strange, enigmatic, unsettling. And oddest of all, it is not about Jesus ... Like any good allegory—any good allegorical novel, at least—the trilogy invites us to read it on multiple levels ... the story is invariably told from the parent’s perspective—in the trilogy, from the perspective of Simón. Which means it takes the form of a baffled, anguished, desperate drive, not to be understood, but to understand: to leap the gulf from self to other, to penetrate the secrets of another soul. And that is Coetzee’s greatest theme of all, the thread that runs throughout his work, that structures his work ... It is no spoiler to reveal that The Death of Jesus narrates Davíd’s demise. Here, at last, the trilogy rises to stretches of power and beauty ... Coetzee is conducting a thought experiment. What does it look like when the truth arrives on Earth in the frail vessel of a human being? How can we recognize it? What do we grasp of it? In what ways does it change the world? ... When the truth arrives on Earth, Coetzee suggests, it takes the form of a question.
...there’s no greater literary caution against easy conclusions than the Jesus trilogy — three novels that, in their Coetzeean combination of spare reality and higher-order philosophical fantasy, deny conclusion. One cannot read analogy and meaning from these books without eventually determining that one is incorrect ... The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus were fine instances of how Coetzee at once reveals and conceals truths in philosophical and mundane narratives. But The Death of Jesus has something additional, something that elevates it to the world-beating poignancy, something that late Coetzee had promised in books like Slow Man but never fully vouchsafed. This is a Coetzee that not only impresses and confounds, but also moves to tears ... amid all the postmodern biblical allegory, ethical quandary, and pursuit of truth, it is an old writer’s rendering of a parents’ relationship with their child, an interrogation of what those roles constitute, that makes this book extraordinary and enduring ... It is the humanity, in The Death of Jesus, that makes it poignant, known but unknowable, and extraordinary ... without adding too much to the wealth of Coetzee chatter, suffice it to say that J. M. Coetzee is still possibly our greatest writer, and that with the masterpiece that is The Death of Jesus, he reminds us why.
The final book of the trilogy...as one might with trepidation expect from its title, is a far darker affair ... For these novels...'Jesus' is the name for a phenomenon that arrives from out of nowhere and challenges our received ideas to breaking point, as David does for the adults around him ... 'Jesus' is the label for a 'wild creature' (as someone calls David) with a gentle contempt for the norms of civilisation; a disruptive force of ceaseless questioning that irrupts into ordinary domestic existence but is not of it ... It is a name for an unusual child, but also perhaps for any child; and even for the practice of literature itself ... The engine of the novel grinds remorselessly on, but never crushes in its gears a delicate, iridescent mystery.
The first thing to say about The Death of Jesus is that the standard rubrics of good and bad do not really apply to it. This is not to say it is not a good novel; it is. But the term seems a feeble one to use ... The Death of Jesus is so deliberately enigmatic that it defies most evaluative judgements. As a whole, the trilogy’s concerns and methods are so entirely removed from those of most contemporary novels that, despite the novelistic pleasures they contain, they make you wonder what novels are even for ... Coetzee...has always engaged with the metafictional questions that have troubled the novel since Defoe and Cervantes. What is a novel’s relationship to the world? What is the ethical and semantic import of a thing which is, at base, a lie? As a continuation of these themes, the Jesus trilogy is at once franker and more oblique than anything Coetzee has written ... Although rarely given credit for a sense of humour, he has one, and these, in all their seriousness, are playful books ... The Death of Jesus reminds us that meaning, for good and ill, is a kind of game we get to make up as we go along.
The Death of Jesus brings to a close JM Coetzee’s enigmatic trilogy, one of the strangest literary projects of the past decade ... beyond these rather loose connections, the relevance of Jesus to this trilogy is oblique at best. Rather, Coetzee’s real concern seems to lie in dramatising the all-too-human desire to find greater meaning in books and individuals’ lives than either can sustain ... The philosophical mood of the novel is at once central to its interest and perhaps its most alienating quality. Too many characters seem to speak in the same deliberative, quietly articulate, contrived way ... the result is a novel that is simply less involving than the Nobel laureate’s finest works, or even the other novels in the trilogy. It is also difficult to escape the feeling that issues Coetzee has explored so incisively elsewhere here never get off the ground ... Readers new to Coetzee would do better to turn their attention to the undisputed masterpieces of his oeuvre ... But for those hooked on his crystalline prose and probing explorations of ethical responsibility, The Death of Jesus is a necessary read, casting a strange new light on one of the world’s greatest and most elusive novelists
The question is, is this a satire on how religions come about, or an attempt to make a modern version of what faith might mean? To be honest, I do not know. There is a political anger that has always been in Coetzee’s work, but here the hedging and the ambiguities seem awfully knowing. It is, by far, the best of the three novels about Simón and David...and the ending is affecting in a way in which Coetzee rarely is ... There are more than a few stylistic problems. I do not think that a newly introduced female character ought to be identified by her cup size ... the winking Biblical references are somehow juvenile, as if crammed in to import importance. The deeply intoned nature of some passages is merely portentous ... David apparently can toss a coin and make it always come up heads. Coetzee is more like a chilly carnival Tarot reader, who draws a blank card and says, wryly, make of that what you will. I told a friend I was reading this book, and he said: 'At least it’s the last.'
The message of Coetzee’s trilogy is...inscrutable. The books sit uncooperatively in a zone between allegory and parable, refuting interpretation. The language is spare, almost completely bereft of metaphor. The plots are perfunctory, only occasionally generating moments of suspense. Lengthy passages in all three volumes are given over to exhaustive but often inconclusive philosophical discussions ... One can’t shake the feeling that Coetzee, in these novels, is perpetrating some kind of practical joke on his readers, a joke that only the author really gets ... Coetzee’s Jesus novels...reveal nothing.
With The Death of Jesus...J.M. Coetzee concludes a trilogy of obscurely allegorical novels...whose mixture of aloof understatement, philosophical discourse and cryptic symbolism has managed to bore and intrigue in equal measure ... The Death of Jesus is much more emotionally involving because of its wrenching portrayal of David’s death—that is, its version of the Passion. But other scriptural allusions seem contrived. There is a sense that Mr. Coetzee has simply stripped the Bible for parts, losing its meanings in the process. The meaning most missed, I think, concerns the nature of faith, which Mr. Coetzee approaches from a strictly secular point of view, conflating it with desire and desperation and a kind of intellectual abandon. His fundamental skepticism extends to the writing, which rummages provocative ideas but never creates the novelistic texture or density to reach a pitch of real mystery, settling instead for mere incomprehension ... however probing and intelligent, the trilogy’s inquiry into belief is too speculative—too much of an exercise—to bring about that suspension of disbelief in the reader.
... a perplexing climax ... Throughout, we look for the clues that might give us insight into the trilogy’s titles, the signs that might be portents. And yet steadily, almost every element of the novels’ interpretive schema crumbles, before it completely falls apart ... We begin to realize that Coetzee has led us into—rather than an allegory of our contemporary world or a representation of Jesus’s—an in-between nowhere place, a mildly oppressive utopia or a relatively humane dystopia, a paradoxical realm where human beings arrive, no matter their age, as if they had just been born ... The question of faith and its absence...returns but in even more contradictory fashion, leaving us with almost nothing beyond the fact of the labor that has produced this puzzling trilogy ... the Jesus novels also suggest that the estrangement felt by their characters—and by us as readers—while disquieting and profound, occupies an uneasy relationship to our alienation from the contemporary.
Four years on from his arrival in the unnamed country, David is 10 and, if anything, even more enraging than in his earlier incarnations ... I’ve given up trying to force meaning into these novels. It’s striking that the most powerful moments in Coetzee’s great earlier books were strongly allegorical and carried deep religious undertones ... Now it feels as if all of the pleasures left to the reader of a Coetzee novel are pleasures of the head, not of the heart. The dreamlike nature of life in the unnamed dystopia that David inhabits makes it hard to achieve any degree of emotional engagement with the characters. The Jesus books are all allegory, and it’s an allegory that is endlessly referred, that never hits home, having no real-world corollary ... I’m increasingly convinced that this trilogy is an elaborate joke by its author at the expense of the exegetes attempting to 'translate' his work.
Like the earlier books, The Death of Jesus doesn’t offer much help in ascribing a meaning to the novels’ world and David’s place in it. Is David really exceptional? Does he remember things from another life? Is he a pawn of forces from another sphere of being? These questions are left open ... It’s as though we’re on the other side of one of the logical impasses to which Coetzee often brings his readers, and which he gets past by saying, let’s just imagine we’ve got past it ... Irony, analogical thinking, ‘a certain attitude of reserve towards the real’: it doesn’t seem to me a bad description of what Coetzee is up to in these novels. The absence of ‘ideological commitment’ is relevant too, because one of the main features of the new life is that it rules out the things Coetzee dealt with in the books that made him famous: history ... There are lots of strange, funny moments ... They suggest that, as well as having more of a sense of humour than he’s sometimes credited with, at this stage in his writing life Coetzee might be more interested in giving his unconscious a shake and seeing what falls out ... there’s something for everyone ... who doesn’t walk around with a name and a birth date they were given in circumstances they don’t remember?
Men and their desires. Do we really need more on the subject? ... Where Coetzee comes down on the divide between passion and reason is difficult to say. He is both a roiling cauldron of emotion and the analytical, unblinking eye trained upon it. One senses a deep shame on his part, almost a revulsion at the way desire betrays what is exalted within us. In his conception, desire entails men behaving disgracefully, sometimes monstrously. And even when its effect is more benign, it involves a humiliating loss of autonomy ... Perhaps, Coetzee suggests, desire is really the expression of some original lack, a bedrock dissatisfaction with the world ... Can another person fill the hole in our lives? In the books of J.M. Coetzee, as in the real world, desire usually leads to complications, disasters. There are few happy endings and a lot of pain, loneliness, frustration. If there is solace to be had, it lies in higher pursuits—in writing, for example, in the sublimating act that lifts even the lowest desires into the rarefied echelon of art. But what would we have to write about were it not for feelings like desire? Coetzee’s early work was so immersed in the political, but in the dusk of his career he has reoriented himself toward a more elemental subject: the longing for happiness, for wholeness, for life itself. Desire is the proof that we are alive; that we are, in both the best and worst senses of the word, human.
The sense of a writer finding material worth riffing on never quite goes away, but there is more to it than that: in their needling, selfish, dry-as-dust way, these three books are works of cumulative power and never less than consistent interest ... Like the two novels that preceded it, The Death of Jesus is difficult to get a handle on ... But the sense of half knowing what is happening, of seeing the story we recognise in the shadows of the story we are being told, accompanies this book just as much as the others ... What is interesting about these books, however, is not this surface level of event, but the environment in which the events are bedded. The trilogy is a work of speculative fiction, geared towards answering a particular question: what kind of Christ might grow from the Enlightenment? In other words, if a figure like Jesus were to appear in a world that was like ours, had developed in exactly the same way as ours had but without Christianity, what religion would he give us? ... an effective and fascinating piece of fiction. Whether you think it has any value beyond the paradoxes and parallels it gives us, or is simply further proof that the reason Coetzee and Coelho are shelved alongside one another in libraries is not simple alphabetical coincidence, will depend on your tolerance for this mode of writing.
'There is no why' nicely captures the spirit of The Death of Jesus, a cryptic book about an enigmatic boy who is getting sick of explaining himself ... is mystifying, but it isn’t always subtle ... For something so clearly written, the Jesus trilogy is, as everyone notes, a confusing work of fiction ... That a higher being might look to a social worker like a little boy with a low IQ is a running joke in the Jesus trilogy; but one wonders if a reader, too, might have been baffled, were it not for those tell-all titles ... The titles place us, you might say, in the position of so many parents, convinced on not quite textual grounds that their little boy really is special. As a literary strategy, this is ingenious. It is also ironic, because the effect is to make us, as readers, more like Simón, i.e., a little too sure of ourselves ... the dying boy chastises the living, obscurely, as the literary references pile up, not much more helpful than the medical jargon ... In the Jesus trilogy, Coetzee holds out for a while. He stares into an abyss, the abyss within the mind of a young boy, and even steps up to the edge of it. But in the end he does the math.
...[an][ exercise in obfuscation. Like its predecessors...it has all the hallmarks of allegory but one: it eludes interpretation ... The narrative lurches through bizarre turns of event ... Roadblocks to comprehensibility are sedulously put in place. Phrases such as 'True but also not true' abound. There’s much blind-alley allusiveness ... Given the persisting scriptural cross-reference, it’s possible David’s death may not be the end of this messianic mumbo jumbo. But you’d have to be a very devout devotee of Coetzee to hope for a resurrection.
... dazzles in its ability to present profound questions while challenging the reader to remain critical and question the meaning derived from any and all parables ... There is a definite connection between the three novels, but it is possible to read The Death of Jesus as a standalone text. Coetzee interweaves backstory, enough to provide new readers with context but without alienating his devoted readership ... Whereas Coetzee's writing regularly utilizes parables, The Death of Jesus purposely destabilizes ... Here, Coetzee plays with the trust his readership offers him as an author thereby avowing the novel's purpose ... Coetzee smashes the proverbial mirror of interpretation but in a way that is haughty rather than subversive. Coetzee's point is acceptable when aligned with postmodernism but it is also unsatisfactory and renders the ultimate question: was this the author's intent from the beginning? Unlikely ... As a standalone work, the less involved narrative galvanizes a metafictional reading. But when considered among the trilogy, The Death of Jesus is Coetzee's weakest effort. He misses opportunities to revisit important philosophical questions such as the deconstruction of passion or ethical responsibility. Davíds death hurriedly concludes the narrative without establishing closure. Inasmuch as The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus were driven by deep philosophical questions and drawn with striking allegory, the final novel is comparatively flippant and dismissive ... Over the course of his oeuvre, Coetzee's writing has adroitly communicated his intellect. Yet The Death of Jesus is only a glimpse into the breadth of his ideas and the third installment is an anti-climatic conclusion to an otherwise captivating trilogy.
... the narrative sinks into an abyss of metaphysical speculations on life, death, and the continuity of life after death ... apparent and occasionally far-fetched religious parallelisms ... Coetzee raises fundamental questions of existence: the perennial conflict between romantic entrapment and harsh reality; the call of the individual self and the pressure of societal conformity; the various incompatible systems of morality; the problematic notion of sanity; and, finally, the universal relevance of great literature in human civilisation. In all this, one cannot get rid of the uncomfortable feeling that Coetzee is playing with the gullible reader. If the post-modernist reality is a ‘game’, then Coetzee proves himself to be the star gamer.
The conclusion of Coetzee’s Jesus trilogy is no less intellectually confounding than the first two installments, but its mixture of allegory and philosophical discourse becomes further complicated, and its overall effect is intensified by strong currents of grief ... Though a veritable house of interpretative mirrors, as many of Coetzee’s novels are, this one points readers to a less cerebral, more visceral intimacy with the losses it contemplates.
... thoughtful, clear-eyed ... Like in previous volumes, Coetzee’s simple, clean prose is guided by philosophical questions, and Simon’s humanistic reflections provide a thrilling contrast to David’s bumpy journey of faith and acceptance of his mortality. This is an ambitious and satisfying conclusion.
Coetzee’s tone is flat and matter-of-fact throughout, and the book feels slightly underdone, with several unanswered questions—the most central of them that message, at which we can only guess ... For Coetzee completists, though not up to masterworks like Waiting for the Barbarians and Life & Times of Michael K.