Continuing the story begun in “The Childhood of Jesus,” this sequel returns to a landscape like many of J.M. Coetzee’s others. 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.
There is still no Jesus to be seen — but Davíd, the 6-year-old boy being schooled in “The Schooldays of Jesus,” does keep insisting that Davíd isn’t his real name. And he is, it’s roundly observed, an exceptional child of uncertain connection to the people he likewise insists aren’t his real parents.
In the earlier book, Davíd is one of many passengers transported by ship to a new land, a journey that erases all traces of the immigrants’ earlier lives. Learning that Davíd has lost his mother, an older shipmate named Simón becomes his guardian. Through some mysterious act of intuition, Simon recognizes a mother for the boy in another stranger, Inés, who just as mysteriously accepts the child as hers.
When Davíd proves difficult (the alternate reading for “exceptional”), the authorities want to send him to a special boarding school, at which point the makeshift family flees — and this is where “The Schooldays of Jesus” picks up.
One of Davíd’s difficulties is his peculiar understanding of numbers — and so it is a stroke of luck that in their new town, Simón and Inés find a dance academy dedicated to guiding the souls of students toward “the realm of numbers through dance … bringing them in accord with the great underlying movement of the universe.”
Ana Magdalena, the coolly beautiful dance instructor, explains that while all memory of a former existence is lost to adults, the young child still bears “shadow recollections which he lacks the words to express.”
“Words are feeble,” she says, and “that is why we dance. In the dance we call the numbers down from where they live among the aloof stars. We surrender ourselves to them in dance, and while we dance, by their grace, they live among us.”
Shut out of this music of the spheres, an earthbound mortal like Simón — “the exemplary stepfather, the man of reason, the dullard” — must find his footing via other means. The possibilities play out in philosophical debates; in a passionate affair that ends in murder; in the insanely funny courtroom drama that follows; even in a class in Spanish composition that leads to this reckoning: “Why he is here he will discover in the process of being here.”
The elusive logic, the lost language Davíd reaches when he dances, remains a mystery. “A man goes out and scours the world for the answer to his one great question, What is it that I lack?” the director of the dance academy says to Simón. But “perhaps we should be scouring the world not for the true answer but for the true question. Perhaps that is what we lack.”
The wonder is that Coetzee, in his matter-of-fact style, conveys the longing that gives that mystery its power and meaning.
Ellen Akins is a writer, teacher and book critic in northern Wisconsin.
The Schooldays of Jesus
By: J.M. Coetzee.
Publisher: Viking, 260 pages, $27.