As he passed his 70th birthday, J. M. Coetzee—South African–born Nobel laureate, two-time winner of the Booker Prize, among the greatest living writers in the English language—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—The Childhood of Jesus, The Schooldays of Jesus, and finally The Death of Jesus—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.
It is about a boy who is known only as Davíd. Davíd, who both is and isn’t Jesus, lives with Simón and Inés, who both are and aren’t his parents, in a world that both is and isn’t our own. And Davíd both is and isn’t his name. It is the name that was assigned to him when he and Simón arrived in the country, or sphere, where the action takes place. Arrived from where? They themselves do not appear to know. Another country? Another life? Another plane? They had traveled across the sea, a process, we learn, that cleansed them of memories. They had passed a few weeks in a camp, where they’d begun to learn the local language, then been processed through a relocation center. Are they refugees? Immigrants? Souls transported to a kind of blandly social-democratic afterlife? The place is peaceful, if dull; their needs are met, if meagerly. Or is it only another life—lust and pain and death and even evil, it transpires, have not been banished—one, perhaps, in an endless succession of lives?