J. M. Coetzee’s Unsettling Trilogy About a Possibly Divine Boy

The novelist asks how we recognize the truth when it enters the world.

Karolis Strautniekas

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?

And who is Simón to Davíd? The story Simón tells—tells himself as much as anyone (it is itself a memory, or perhaps something less than a memory: a reconstruction, even a wishful fabrication)—is that he had seen Davíd alone aboard the ship. In a pouch around his neck, the boy had carried a letter to his mother (to his mother? from his mother?), but the letter had gone missing, at which point Simón had stepped in. He would help him find her, he vowed, though Davíd could not tell him her name or what she looked like. One day, on a walk, a few months into their new existence, Simón is convinced that he sees her. Don’t you recognize her? he asks the boy. Davíd shakes his head, but Simón is undeterred. He accosts the woman; she is young, haughty, wealthy. Will you be his mother? he asks. Adopt him? she responds. “Not adopt,” he says. “Be his mother, his full mother.”

This is Inés. She recoils, retreats, relents. The three become a family, and for the rest of its first installment, as well as for most of its second, the trilogy is, as much as anything, the story of a family—an unusual family but in many ways a familiar, modern one. The parents do not get along. Inés is cold; Simón is a well-meaning plodder; they only stay together for the kid. Inés is convinced that the boy is exceptional. Davíd will soon be 6, and his parents struggle over schooling. “Inés says I don’t have to go to school,” Davíd informs Simón. “She says I am her treasure. She says … I won’t get individual attention at school.”

The homeschooling project does not go well—Davíd refuses to learn to read or write, except in a private language of his own invention, and with math he’ll have nothing to do—but when his parents place him in a public school, that does not go any better. Davíd is not “adjusting” well, they’re told. He is disruptive, inattentive; he disobeys the teacher. The parents are ordered to see a psychologist. Their child lacks “a real parental presence,” she announces. She suspects that he might be dyslexic. “I would say that what is special about Davíd is that he feels himself to be special.”

Like any good allegory—any good allegorical novel, at least—the trilogy invites us to read it on multiple levels. On one, Davíd is not the messiah but simply an exceptionally gifted child, the kind of kid with whom the world in general, and the education system in particular, does not know how to deal. He can read and write, we discover—he’s taught himself. He just doesn’t want to read the sort of stories that he’s expected to read in school (“Juan and María go to the sea … Juan and María are excited”) or write the sort he’s expected to write (“Stories about vacations. About what people do during vacations”). He asks incessant, inconvenient questions, the kind the grown-ups can’t or would rather not answer (“Who is God?” “What are breasts for?”). His relationship with numbers can be understood as personal, even mystical. They are not, for him, abstractions to be added and subtracted, but unique and individualized entities. When his teacher asks him for the sum of five and three, he closes his eyes, “as if listening for a far-off word to be spoken.” At last he says, “This time … this time … it is … eight.”

His parents, however supportive and loving, are not more comprehending than his teacher is. And Davíd resents them for it. They do not “recognize” him, he insists: meaning, as we’d say today, they do not “get” him, do not see him for who he is. Davíd is not my real name, he interjects when Simón and Inés introduce him, and these are not my real parents. So what is, and who are? He doesn’t know himself. At many moments, Davíd’s is the story not only of every unusual child, every adopted child, but of every child, full stop: every child who daydreams of being an orphan, of being a prince in disguise, who believes his real parents will arrive one day to rescue him, who wants to know who he is and where he is from and where he is meant to belong.

The trilogy thus embodies two of Coetzee’s persistent themes: generational conflict and the problem of “recognition.” The two are intertwined. Generational conflict in his novels takes the form of children’s struggle, not to free themselves from parents but to be understood by them—to be understood as different from them. That is Lucy’s struggle with her father, David Lurie, in Disgrace (1999), as she chooses to stay on the farmstead where she has been raped. In The Master of Petersburg (1994), a Dostoyevskian novel about Dostoyevsky, it is Pavel’s struggle with his stepfather, the writer himself. But 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. We also find that drive directed in his novels toward the racial other: toward the blinded “barbarian” girl in Waiting for the Barbarians (1980); toward the black and all-but-mute protagonist in Life and Times of Michael K (1983); toward Friday in Foe (1986), Coetzee’s rewriting of Robinson Crusoe, who has had his tongue cut out—figures who cannot speak or will not speak or can’t be heard. In Elizabeth Costello (2003), in a pair of bravura passages, we find it directed toward figures who aren’t even human: animals in captivity and the gods on high. Elizabeth Costello is a writer; she is Coetzee’s alter ego as a writer. The problem of understanding, in his conception—the problem of “recognition”—is the writer’s essential predicament: how to speak for others; how to make the other speak.

Davíd is luckier than Pavel or Lucy. In the trilogy’s second installment, he finds adults who get him. He enrolls in an academy of music and dance that is run by a couple, Juan Arroyo and Ana Magdalena, whose sensibility speaks to his own. The numbers are music, they teach. The numbers are stars. We play and dance—the dance of Two, the more intricate dance of Three, the still more intricate dance of Five—to summon them down from the heavens. Rather than individuals being regarded as numbers, as is the practice of states and bureaucracies (a census is conducted during The Schooldays of Jesus), numbers are regarded as individuals, unique and sacred beings. The world is re-enchanted; instrumental reason is rejected; the universe is apprehended in a way both new and ancient.

But despite this promising development, the academy is also where the trilogy runs headlong, it appears, into The Brothers Karamazov—or at least into the brothers Karamazov—derailing its hopeful trajectory. There is an Alyosha, a young assistant and, like his counterpart in Dostoyevsky, a gentle and sensitive soul. There is a Dmitri, a kind of hanger-on (he’s a guard at the nearby museum) and, as in the earlier novel, a brutal sensualist and sentimentalist. There is no Ivan, but there is, as we saw, a Juan, the Spanish equivalent, a luftmensch like his predecessor.

In the middle of the novel—at the center of the trilogy—Dmitri commits an unspeakable, intimate murder. He is remanded to a mental institution: This is a society that believes in psychiatry, not sin. Some weeks later, as the volume culminates, the academy puts on a lecture-demonstration. Davíd dances Seven, a vision of grace. “As if the earth has lost its downward power,” Simón thinks, “the boy seems to shed all bodily weight, to become pure light.” From the back of the theater, Dmitri, escaped, bursts in. “Forgive me,” he cries. And here Davíd displays his superhuman (if not exactly Christlike) moral gifts. No forgiveness, he decrees: “You must bring her back.” The judgment represents a kind of spiritual riddle—or, if you will, a parable.

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. As affecting as Davíd’s decline is—his classmates, like disciples, gather around his hospital bed to be enchanted by his tales—its aftermath is even more so. A comet has traversed the sky, and those who witnessed it are left to seek its meaning and dispute its legacy. Legends take shape; a miracle is reported; a mystery is mooted; competing cults are born. 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?

And do we even believe that that is what has taken place? His titles notwithstanding, Coetzee offers no definitive proof that the trilogy does indeed narrate a visitation from the divine. Maybe the boy is just exceptional. (Maybe those are the same thing.) As important here as is The Brothers Karamazov, the chief presiding presence is Don Quixote. Early on, Simón obtains a copy for Davíd, in a children’s illustrated version, and the book becomes a point of reference, implicit and explicit, for the rest of the trilogy. Simón plays Sancho Panza, the stolid but faintly ridiculous man of common sense, to Davíd’s Don Quixote, the florid and passionate fabulist—except, that is, when the roles are reversed, just like in the original. (There can be no more quixotic a moment than when Simón lays eyes on Inés and decides that she must be Davíd’s mother.)

Coetzee is asking Cervantes’s questions as well. Is truth a function of perspective? Are reason and the senses the only valid ways of knowing? What is real—or more to the point, is there more than one way for a thing to be real? Do the products of the imagination—beliefs that we need to believe, memories that we construct, legends that we tell of people after they have gone, novels like Don Quixote—possess their own reality, especially given that they clearly have the power to affect the world? When the truth arrives on Earth, Coetzee suggests, it takes the form of a question.

This article appears in the June 2020 print edition with the headline “The Special Child.”