Don’t Be Cross



He has answered the boy’s questions about condom use, about human nature, and about poo (“the poo-ness of poo”). He has weighed in on the probability of an afterlife (pretty probable) and the pitfalls of having a penis (“Did his penis make him kill people?”). He has explained to him, incessantly, at times impatiently, that “that is the way the world is.” Now Simón, the guardian of David, the boy who might be Jesus, has some questions of his own. I suppose you could call them philosophical. “He, Simón, speaks. ‘I am confused. Did you or did you not tell Dr. Julio that Inés and I are doing bad things to you?’” In retrospect, we might have guessed that the author of Disgrace would go there. God did bad things to his son too.

In The Death of Jesus, J. M. Coetzee concludes his take on the greatest story ever told, emphasizing the child-abuse angle. In this version, no one gets crucified, technically, though there are some awkward conversations. “Simón, in the next life will I do sexual intercourse?” It’s been five years since, in The Childhood of Jesus, Simón and David, two immigrants “washed clean of the past,” arrived by boat to the city of Novilla (Spanish for “heifer”), located in a strange, rather bovine land where everyone speaks Spanish and no one much likes sex. (“These parts that are not beautiful—you want to push them inside me!”) It’s been four years since, in The Schooldays of Jesus, they fled—along with Inés, David’s “elected” mother, and Bolívar, her wolf dog—across the mountains to Estrella, a quieter town. Here David discovered dance and, later, down in a basement, a corpse: Ana Magdalena, his dance teacher. “Beware of forgiveness,” her murderer told him. “I don’t forgive you,” David responded.

That the Messiah might have a cold little heart is a possibility these books have long flirted with. “Honour your mother,” Simón tells David in book one. “No!” says David. “My mother must honour me!” In The Death of Jesus, David, now ten and tall, has long since put his parents in their place. Social services still hasn’t managed to stick him in special ed (he won’t do math). The census-takers still haven’t managed to count him (officially he doesn’t exist). All who meet him agree he’s “exceptional.” “Under their wing David has flourished,” Simón thinks on page 6. It’s the kind of statement, just the tiniest bit smug, that shall in this novel be punished as hubris.

Mel Bochner, Random Numbers #4, 2001, oil on canvas, 22 × 28". © Mel Bochner, Courtesy the artist and Simon Lee Gallery
Mel Bochner, Random Numbers #4, 2001, oil on canvas, 22 × 28". © Mel Bochner, Courtesy the artist and Simon Lee Gallery

The “family of David” is in the car on the way back from a soccer game against a new opponent—the local orphanage—when the “bad things” first pop up. Books one and two of this trilogy have been compared to Plato for the philosophical quality of their dialogues. In book three the back-and-forth is less Socratic:

“Answer me, David,” she says. “Did you tell Dr. Julio we have been doing bad things to you?”

“I don’t have to answer. If you are a child you don’t have to answer.”

He, Simón, speaks. “I am confused. Did you or did you not tell Dr. Julio that Inés and I are doing bad things to you?”

“I don’t have to tell.”

“I don’t understand. You do not have to tell me or you do not have to tell Dr. Julio?”

“I don’t have to tell anyone. . . . I don’t have to say why. That is his philosophy. There is no why.”

“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. Possibly literally. The man behind the mantra, Dr. Julio Fabricante, the orphanage’s director, of late has been coming to watch David play soccer. Dr. Julio is the kind of orphanage director who declares, the first time we meet him, that orphanhood is the human condition—“for we are all, at the deepest level, alone in the world,” etc. Like the rest of the trilogy, The Death of Jesus is mystifying, but it isn’t always subtle.

When Simón, in the car, points out that what David has said isn’t true, David retorts that “things don’t have to be true to be true.” He cites as precedent his favorite novel. “But what does Don Quixote have to do with all of this—this mess?” Simón asks. It’s one of those moments, almost a trademark of Coetzee’s fiction, where it’s funny mainly (and perhaps only) because the writer may in fact be stone-serious. (In his “fictional memoir” Summertime, Coetzee has an ex-girlfriend describe his lovemaking as “autistic.”) Simón speculates that David has accused him merely as a pretext to leave home for the orphanage—the orphans beat his team, and he wants “to be a winner.” It seems impossibly trivial. And yet, at least trivially, Simón is right. Within days, David will have packed his bags, claiming his right to refuge with Dr. Julio. “You must leave me to do what I have to do,” David tells Simón, who “freely confess[es] to the crime of not understanding.” Simón’s just being, as is his wont, bitter, though a reader might wonder if he is on to something.

Is it a crime to be confused by the incomprehensible? To have been abandoned by your beloved son on grounds too murky even to argue with—to have been wronged by someone who, in some deeper sense, may be in the right—is a predicament of a kind familiar from many of Coetzee’s novels. Its most notorious occurrence is in Disgrace, where the arc of history, in postapartheid South Africa, bends toward a white woman’s gang rape. (“It was history speaking through them. . . . A history of wrong.”) And in another book, you suspect, Coetzee may well have run with this plot. In the Jesus trilogy, however, set in a world without history, the hero’s cross to bear isn’t what has happened already; it is what is happening now. In The Death of Jesus, what happens has a hospital setting. You could call it a comedy of bedside manners, except there aren’t any jokes. “Are they aware that [David] has a rare blood type?” the doctors will ask Simón.

Maybe a few jokes.

For something so clearly written, the Jesus trilogy is, as everyone notes, a confusing work of fiction. It is so confusing that the confusion it creates can only be the point. Why, for example, do the characters purport to be speaking in “beginner’s Spanish,” when what we see on the page is Coetzee’s usual elegant English? Why, when German is spoken, is that identified as English? Why, when Simón begins this trilogy a malcontent, sick with desire in a world of goodwill, does he become, in book two, “coldly rational,” and in book three, “Simón the Dull”? But the hardest thing to understand about the Jesus trilogy is, of course, David. And the hardest thing to understand about him is what he cannot understand: math.

For the fact is that David cannot add. Actually, he cannot count. He does not see three pens but one pen and one pen and one pen. “I know all the numbers,” he says, arrogantly. Then he says that 888 is bigger than 889. “How do you know?” he retorts when Simón tries to correct him. “You have never been there.” After all, he is six. And yet he plays chess with grown men and wins. He outsmarts and torments all his teachers. He also torments Simón, whose certitudes, by the end of The Childhood of Jesus, have begun to waver. “Most of the time, Eugenio, I think the child simply doesn’t understand,” as he puts it to a coworker. “But now and then I have to ask myself: Is there anyone on earth to whom numbers are more real?”

Three men in a car: simple. But David won’t follow us. He won’t take the steps we take when we count: one step two step three. It is as if the numbers were islands floating in a great black sea of nothingness, and he were each time being asked to close his eyes and launch himself across the void. What if I fall?—that is what he asks himself. What if I fall and then keep falling for ever? . . . And what if we, who so confidently take the step, are in fact falling through space, only we don’t know it because we insist on keeping our blindfold on? What if this boy is the only one among us with eyes to see?

Eugenio points out that this is “schoolboy philosophizing”; schoolboys of a certain age may recall The Matrix. As for David’s teachers, they recommend special ed, which in time the state shall mandate.

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. In fact, the name “Jesus” never once occurs in these books, except on their covers—which, Coetzee has said, he initially wanted to be blank (“In the publishing industry as it is at present, that is not allowed”). You can see his reasons why; it is hard to think of another work of prose fiction whose name so transforms its contents. For, of course, if you have cause to suspect that the child hero of the novel in your hands is the son of God, then everything starts to look different. His brattiness starts to look like Messiah behavior. So does his unwillingness to do math. When he shouts across a crowded room, “Diego, is your bum clean?” you think, That’s Jesus for you—asking the hard questions.

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. If divinity, in these books, is a form of uncertainty, uncertainty raised to a higher power, then Simón is the opposite of a god. He’s a pedant, a man whose curse is his knowingness, stuck in the cycle of question-and-answer described, in book two, by David’s music teacher, Juan Sebastián Arroyo (Spanish for “stream,” which is English for “Bach.” This one’s a master organist too). Always, Arroyo says, this cycle “resumes because in the question already lies the answer, like an unborn child.” He concludes, “Perhaps we should be scouring the world not for the true answer but for the true question. Perhaps that is what we lack.” It’s notable that the speakers here, two old men at a beach, are in the nude. Such is J. M. Coetzee’s “late style”: philosophy, minus the toga.

Is David the “true question,” the human form of the philosophy Simón tells Eugenio he craves—“the kind that shakes one. That changes one’s life”? It’s never entirely clear if all the freakiness and magic aren’t just a trick of perspective, if the most incomprehensible thing about the boy David isn’t simply Simón’s failure to comprehend him. In what is formally the weirdest scene in the entire trilogy, in The Childhood of Jesus, Simón looks into David’s eyes and “sees something”: “It is like—that is what occurs to him in the moment. Like a fish that wriggles loose as you try to grasp it. But not like a fish—no, like like a fish. Or like like like a fish.” It’s a neat evocation of what is known as a mystical experience, of language falling short even as it stretches past its limits. And it enacts, in miniature, what happens over and again in this trilogy: The fish keeps wriggling free.

“I will follow you to the ends of the earth,” Simón vows at the end of The Childhood of Jesus, and, certainly, he tries. He is less the Joseph to David’s Jesus than the Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote, a man with a “tiny little heart like a bedbug,” plodding after a nobler being who floats free of all dull constraints. Every fanciful question David asks, Simón, logically, tries to answer; and in this world unencumbered by history, even Simón’s pedantry has the freshness of discovery. In his superb “fictional memoir” Youth, Coetzee writes of “a knowledge too humble to know it is knowledge” (he’s referring, specifically, to his research for his first novel, 1974’s Dusklands), and it’s knowledge of this kind that David and Simón collaborate to produce. They bring to their industrializing world an intellectual innocence that is almost pre-Socratic, pondering the question of human nature with the same intensity they do a toilet bowl. “We partake of the ideal but we also make poo,” Simón tells David. “That is because we have a double nature. I don’t know how to put it more simply.” I don’t either.

“He does not feel like a being with a double nature,” Simón later thinks, still trying to unclog that toilet. “He feels like a man fishing for an obstruction in a sewage pipe, using primitive tools.” Reason, in these books, is another such primitive tool, and there are some depths Simón cannot plumb with it—those “pitfalls, philosophical pitfalls,” which only David can see, opening not just in the gaps between 1, 2, and 3 but between the stars above his head and the paving stones below his shoes. All Simón can do is teeter, briefly, on the brink of these abysses; and it is the dramatization of this teetering, of the shakenness of a mind made to wonder if 888 could be bigger than 889, that gives the first books of the Jesus trilogy their exhilarating quality. But only an exceptional boy could actually take the plunge. “What happens when you fall?” David asks Simón in The Childhood of Jesus. “Is it like flying?” Simón answers that it might be—“if you forget you are falling.” In book three, David starts to remember. And just as Simón, in books one and two, could not keep the boy’s feet on the earth, so he will struggle to catch him, once he starts to fall.

When David gets sick, soon after taking up residence in the orphanage, he can do no better than “falling” to describe his symptoms. “I am the only one who falls,” he says. It’s both metaphorical and, on the soccer field, not; his legs buckling under him on a breakaway, he collapses onto his back, “helpless as a beetle.” At the hospital, against “the challenge that David presents,” his doctors submit a barrage of hypotheses—something called Saporta syndrome, “too much stress,” “a neuropathy of the adynamic variety.” They speak of “what used to be called the falling sickness,” which, notably, is what Dostoyevsky calls it.

No less than Kafka’s, the presence of the great Russian’s novels—particularly The Idiot—hovers over these proceedings, as characters from the previous books gather around the invalid’s bed to hear the exceptional boy say exceptional things, much of it in the form of strangely biblical riffs on Don Quixote:

There was brought before Don Quixote a virgin who had a baby which was fatherless.

Then Don Quixote said to the virgin, Who is the father of this baby?

The virgin replied, I cannot say who the father is because I did sexual intercourse with Ramón and I did sexual intercourse with Remi.

At the end of the story, Quixote drops the baby in a bathtub, demanding that the real father step forward. Neither Ramón nor Remi does. “Then the baby sank under the water and turned blue and died.” David concludes with the phrase Jesus, in the Gospels, uses to denounce the Pharisees: “Woe unto you.”

Thus the dying boy chastises the living, obscurely, as the literary references pile up, not much more helpful than the medical jargon. David starts to have seizures. “Even if he cannot be cured, at least we know what is wrong,” Simón says. “Which is better than nothing. Better than not knowing.” That knowing might not be better than nothing isn’t the most complicated idea in these books, but it might be the bitterest, and it’s toward this conclusion that The Death of Jesus heads. The story of the death of a child, it mocks every attempt to make sense of it. “Philosophy tells us when there is nothing more to say,” Simón argues at one point, echoing Wittgenstein, and seen in this light, The Death of Jesus is all philosophy. It is about a man whose powers of reason are finally broken, who confronts the void and can offer no comment. That whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must “shut up” (as Simón tells himself, twice). The answer to two times two is “the beginning of death,” Dostoyevsky once said. 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.

James Camp is a writer living in Brooklyn.