The Jesus novels (which––spoiler alert!––have nothing to do with anyone named Jesus, biblical big shot or otherwise) are relentlessly dialogic, in the literal sense that they proceed mainly in the form of Socratic exchanges about all kinds of philosophical and ethical questions: the true nature of numbers, the conflict between reason and passion ... It certainly wouldn’t be true to say that these books are plotless, as such, because an awful lot of plot-type stuff undeniably happens in them: There are thwarted loves, workplace accidents, unofficial adoptions, clashes with government authorities, and even an honest-to-goodness murder trial. But Coetzee is transparently unconcerned with these events as anything other than occasions for discussion between his characters––characters who are, for the most part, realized only through the presentation of their speech...Such discourse is pretty dry material, even by this author’s formidable standards of dryness ... The book’s structuring opposition between reason and passion is never resolved into any kind of satisfying synthesis but plays itself out as an ongoing exchange of points and counterpoints.
Coetzee [creates] a kind of fusion genre blending the energy of philosophical dialogue, the warmth and unprogrammed humor of father-son repartee, the emotional potency of a family romance and finally the uncanny suggestion of allegory (womb as ship, birth as disembarkation). The result is rich, dense, often amusing and, above all, full of inner tension and suspense ... The Schooldays of Jesus may stand as a riposte to the common charge that Coetzee’s approach to fiction is cerebral and his prose dry, since Dmitri is the passionless Simón’s antithesis: a supremely flamboyant vocal performer and, despite his Russian name, a classically melodramatic Latin lover.
The Coetzeean landscape is eerily stripped down, often physically rudimentary, like a vista by De Chirico: a featureless arena in which colossal philosophical questions cast long shadows. In The Schooldays of Jesus, however, the scenery is so flimsily assembled that it could come straight from Ikea ... In spite of its declared suspicion of Platonic idealism, the spirit of Plato, rather than the anarchic Jesus with his boundary-pushing parables, hovers over this book. Plato was famously dismissive of the seductive properties of mimetic literature, which urge us to make an imaginative identification with a fictional world. He would have agreed without hesitation that novels are for babies. Philosophy is for adults. On the evidence of this austere, barely realised mise-en-scène, it is difficult not to feel that Coetzee, like Plato, is no longer much interested in the accidents of our quotidian human world, the shadows on the cave wall. He is after essence alone, the pure, ungraspable fire. In his fidelity to ideas, to telling rather than showing, to instructing rather than seducing us, he does not actually write fiction any more. The Schooldays of Jesus, philosophically dense as it is, is parched, relentlessly adult fare – rather like eating endless bread and bean paste.
As in the previous novel, everything seems concrete enough, and at the same time filled with strategic unreality — an unreality that seems all the more inscrutably symbolic, and, at times, quite funny, the more the writing brushes casually over it ... the novel often reads like pastiche: even the sentences seem deliberately constructed, from time to time, to resemble translations in a yellowing Penguin Classic. It’s a subtly different project from the strenuous fictions that won Coetzee his Nobel and two Man Booker prizes: still intense but, by his standards, a bit rambling yet oddly focused. Perhaps what we’re seeing is Coetzee having fun.
The good news (if you will) is that the parallels to the Gospels are not so schematic in this novel as in its airless predecessor. Mr. Coetzee gives himself more imaginative space to investigate the tension expressed by the murderer, who, seeking atonement, bemoans that 'the law takes no reckoning of the state of a man’s soul.' Even so, The Schooldays of Jesus is an anemic reading experience. Mr. Coetzee expends little effort in giving the story shape or texture. His world-building is haphazard and his descriptions incurious. About Davíd’s strange dancing, we learn only that it 'consists in gliding from point to point on the stage.' Too much of the novel is a drab receptacle for genuinely intriguing ideas; trapped somewhere inside it is a first-rate volume of essays.
There is a lot of high-minded gasbagging about numerology and the stars and passion and innocence. Coetzee uses a flat, affectless style with few modifiers and treats plot and character development as nuisances to be brushed aside ... Coetzee is 77 and has been a restless experimentalist throughout his career, never afraid to try a fresh approach while remaining grounded in philosophy and a classic literature. Two allusions in Schooldays are typical of his approach — they’re intelligent but incidental to the narrative. They don’t build meaning or add character; they’re just there ... The Schooldays of Jesus is an argument in search of a story, a sequel that isn’t very good from an author who knows better.
The details of these novels cannot be matched up in any schematic way with the events of Jesus’ life. Some readers may find this dissonance freeing. To me, it’s irritatingly coy. Like the bystanders in the Gospel of John, I’m left asking: 'How long dost thou make us to doubt? If thou be the Christ, tell us plainly' ... The most satisfying parts of the novel come early as Simón struggles to provide David with the love and direction the boy needs. Coetzee has an impeccable ear for the tender patter between a curious child and a conscientious father figure who never wants to lose his patience ... There’s no denying the haunting quality of Coetzee’s measured prose, his ability to suspend ordinary events in a world just a few degrees away from our own. But to what end? Although The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus are presented as allegories, they never yield any interesting allegorical meaning. The result is a story that suggests more profundity than it ever incarnates.
Precise and spare in features and language, nearly to the point of flatness, the book has the feel of allegory, but in the unmoored manner of Kafka’s stories where the ideal and the practical, the personal and the universal, collide in startling and often comical ways ... The wonder is that Coetzee, in his matter-of-fact style, conveys the longing that gives that mystery its power and meaning.
The story feels at points like a small raft sinking under the cargo of its own ponderous themes and allusions. There is a murder, a confession, a trial, a series of debates about the nature of crime and forgiveness. This is grand material, the stuff of the greatest Russian literature and the most powerful biblical narratives. But it feels intentionally diminished by the parched, etiolated quality of Coetzee's prose. However charged the subject matter, his language always retains a formal analytic distance ... Coetzee has channeled a host of influences in this novel: Saramago, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Plato, Ishiguro. The novel is strongest in its moments of gently comic surrealism — the spectators in a packed courtroom take a moment to calm themselves by closing their eyes, the man debates with the composer Juan Sebastian whether names are essentially arbitrary, a murdered duck has a funeral. The reaching for more profound registers remains strained, which may well be a deliberate dramatization of the failure of rationality to appreciate the full subtleties of art. Coetzee has become the dancer trying to explain the dance.
Schooldays is not a realistic novel. I would hesitate to call it a novel at all: It’s closer to a Socratic dialogue on the relationship between reason and passion that is structured around a small child for reasons that are frankly beyond me. It aggressively disdains the idea of story in favor of the idea of thought ... Schooldays is the kind of book that will appeal if you think Brecht’s teaching plays aren’t quite didactic enough, or if you look at Lacan and think, 'Why couldn’t this be more obscure, though?' As a book that is ostensibly supposed to be a novel, it is as dry as sawdust. As what it is, it is probably brilliant.
Coetzee’s prose may be devoid of Faulknerian flourishes, but somehow his 'bread and beans' writing seems to me more appetizing than that of just about any novelist working today, even though it often leaves a knot of hunger in the stomach ... a frustrated reader hoping for clarity in The Schooldays of Jesus is likely to be disappointed. In fact, this sequel raises even more questions ... One does not need to be a disciple of Coetzee’s to make sense of these books, but a willingness to trust in his authorial power is a requirement for extracting their sustenance. Without it, that most blasphemous p-word (ends with 'retentious') will wend its serpentine way into your mind and all hope will be lost ... The ending of Schooldays, much like that of its predecessor, feels abrupt, and leaves the reader uncertain as to whether this is truly the end, or part of a longer series.
…it’s likely that his move to Australia — where he emigrated from South Africa in 2002 — informs his 2013 novel, The Childhood of Jesus, and now its sequel, The Schooldays of Jesus. These books follow set of refugees, settling in a strange land … austere narratives, elemental in their treatment of daily life, with the barest tissue of realistic detail … Many scenes have the qualities of miniature Socratic dialogues … The novel’s action centers on David’s enrollment as a boarder in the Academy of Dance and the murder of his teacher…novel’s intellectual poles are passion and rationality … Simon’s growing apathy and sense of his own uselessness turns out to be a source of the novel’s power. It makes him a neutral interlocutor in the dialogic framework, and a perfect foil for the volatile elements in play …there’s a stark beauty to these novels of ideas and the haunting images that infuse them.
The Schooldays of Jesus is written in English, as if in translation. Scattered throughout the text, Spanish words such as novio, amigo and huérfano are clear from context, but the effect is to create a kind of linguistic scrim, as if, like the foreigner Simón, we, too, are strangers in a strange land. Forced to make do with an English approximation, we are forever denied access to the original ... Resembling the Platonic dialogues more than the four canonical gospels, The Schooldays of Jesus proceeds through a series of conversations about fundamental topics such as education, passion, numbers, justice, penance and death ... Some will likely find this novel exasperatingly evasive. But if, as Arroyo claims, 'the stars have dances of their own,' Coetzee’s novel — a fresh addition to his Jesus franchise — is an invitation to the celestial dance.