Review Essay | ‘Vexing the Exemplary’ by Paromita Patranobish | Issue 38 (Feb, 2021)

on J.M. Coetzee’s recent novel, The Death of Jesus (2019)

From David Lurie to Michael K, J. M. Coetzee has shown a penchant for drafting commonplace protagonists who end up quite unexpectedly in the thick of extraordinary historical circumstances. To these fallible, unassuming characters falls the overwhelming burden of bearing witness to and reckoning with a newly discovered complicity in social and political processes beyond the self’s agency, and become accidental bearers of a certain socially imposed mark of exemplarity. In the trajectory of their diverse modes of resistance to this process, another narrative of exemplarity is produced, one that charts the full tragic implications of being human. Constrained by historical forces, these characters remain irreducible to available cultural frameworks, enacting deliberate, corporeally mediated engagements with precarity, destitution, shared animality, and the mutability of the flesh. 

In many ways, Coetzee has continued this basic idea in his trilogy about an orphaned child named David, the final installment of which came out late last year. The Death of Jesus despite its brevity upholds the patent standards of stylistic acuity and philosophical rigour that Coetzee has set in books like Life and Times of Michael K (1983), Age of Iron (1990), and more recently Slow Man (2005), all of which pivot around the provocative collision of individual life and private temporality with the density of historical change. 

The insertion of a singular life into the grammar of exceptionalism is effected in the very title of the book: ‘Jesus’ is not a character in the novel, rather he/it is a cipher, at once a cultural reference and a heuristic device, and thus an invitation, playfully and drolly offered to the reader, to embark on varieties of allegorical and speculative reading. The tantalising sparseness of the narrative, effective in sustaining what appears to be Coetzee’s reluctance to provide interpretive closure, is supplemented with a proliferation of multiple voices converging around the central enigma of David’s presence (and eventually absence) with minimal authorial interference. Hence, even though the novel uses an attenuated version of the third person narrative perspective, it takes us in and out of the minds of its characters as their separate paths and claims over David cross, creating a rich texture of partial, fragmentary, competing, and complementary variations on theological, ethical, social, pedagogic, familial, aesthetic, and philosophical questions.

The trilogy follows David, a young boy separated from his mother while crossing the border, and adopted by Simón, a gentle, peaceable man, and fellow refugee. Simón and his wife Inés move to the provincial town of Estrella, a fictional Spanish neighbourhood, but which could easily serve as an imaginative reconstruction of the gritty Cape Town suburbs of Coetzee’s own childhood. Here David grows up into a precocious, athletic, and highly imaginative adolescent excelling in dance and soccer. In this novel David, now ten years old decides to leave home to embrace his “orphanhood” in order to enroll in a soccer team that claims to play “proper football.” But his stint at Dr Fabricante’s institution with its dubious conception of charity and education, is short lived, as he contracts a degenerative neurological disease that affects his mobility and vigour. Confined to his hospital bed during his final days, David creates an audience around the telling of stories from his child’s edition of Don Quixote, a book that like the Biblical narrative functions as a meta-textual key to Coetzee’s own explorations. There is, of course, an almost caricaturish use of Christian symbolism in the allusion to the form of the parable (the novel’s clipped, stark style in fact, gives it a parabolic quality as well), and David’s own apotheosis from an ordinary immigrant child into a charismatic young intercessor between the Letter and the masses. 

Coetzee fully relishes the possibilities of the allegorical mode replete with a cameo lamb and David’s sagacious injunction to his dog Bolívar to not harm it, recalling Christ’s vision in Isiah of the wolf dwelling with the lamb (Bolívar sneakily disobeys while David is asleep). But much of the novel’s strength derives from the gaps and ruptures in this allegorical structure, in its exploration of the ways in which David’s story does not overlap with the symbolic logic of mythic archetypes, in Coetzee’s attempt to wrench from this symbolic order what Gilles Deleuze refers to as “an impersonal and yet singular life that releases a pure event freed from the accidents of internal and external life.” An underlying conflict between the sociological grand narratives of exceptionalism, victimhood, social justice, and salvation on the one hand, and life as a “pure event,” a dimension of autobiographical existence that is unclaimed, liminal, a remainder that erupts at the borders of identitarian constructs, is the source of ethical debate in this novel.

The Death of Jesus is roughly divided into two parts: the first deals with the impressionable David’s own ambivalent relationship with questions of personal identity and interests, and his entanglements with a maverick (and corrupt) pedagogic system that exploits his mental amplitude and athletic abilities while feeding him fantasies of his own grandiosity. The second part in the aftermath of David’s tragic death chronicles the attempts of his adult caregivers to weave his live into a cogent, meaningful narrative, the search for meaning being depicted as having less to do with the boy himself, and more as a futile and gratuitous exercise in assuaging the adult community’s insecurities and narcissism. Who or what is David, and more pertinently what is the meaning and value of a life that by normative standards occupies cultural margins: at ten David is a transitional figure between childhood and adulthood, he is an immigrant separated from the place and family of his birth too early leaving him with unreliable memories with which to weave a unified sense of self, the familial set up in which he finds himself is ad-hoc, contingent, made up of caregivers who do not share a conventional marital or sexual bond but are as Simón says, “companions” held together despite their mutual differences by a shared commitment to David’s well-being. This ambiguity of origins and family life is complicated further by the heterodox education he receives at señor Arroyo’s Academy of Music, where aesthetics and philosophy interpenetrate to produce a unique curriculum. David’s abstraction from the pragmatics of social existence is further exacerbated by his affinity for Don Quixote, a book meant to serve an entirely mundane function: to teach him Spanish, but becomes instead a site for activating the young boy’s wild fantasies and imaginative forays. Inés, the boy’s mother is the only person who seems to insist on the importance of providing David with the discipline and rigour of a quotidian, “normal” education. Even Simón’s, conversational, indulgent, overtly liberal approach to David is based on a desire to allow the latter the full expansion of his independent faculties without the imposition of adult will. This could be a fault, as Inés argues: a child needs to be given the occasion to be a child first, in the absence of which disaster might ensue. However, Coetzee’s novel is less interested in elaborating a case for an ideal pedagogy, and more concerned with the irregularities and contradictions that emerge out of this fraught space of guardianship and care-taking, and the implications that the irruption of these tensions might have for the geopolitical, discursive, and biopolitical contestations over individual identity.

Dr Fabricante’s orphanage is the first space of such contestation, and in the novel’s scheme of indirect indictment, perhaps the most dangerous as well. We are, of course, never offered any privileged access to the vantage of narrative omniscience; rather a critical perspective emerges out of Simón’s predicament, as he watches David swing between (a fairly usual) adolescent impulsiveness and youthful rebellion against perceived authority on the one hand, and Fabricante’s manipulation of the volatility of the child’s inchoate subjectivity intended to turn him into a poster boy for his social justice rhetoric. As David leaves home lured by the seductive appeal of the label that he desires to don, Simón is horrified to discover the hegemonic mix of insinuation, flattery, false assurance, and moral jargon at the root of David’s attraction for the orphanage. Dr Fabricante’s vision of victimhood and justice, as Simón finds out, is beset by deep hypocrisy and moral vacuity. His charity is soon exposed to be a carefully cultivated performance for personal power and political clout: the orphanage is a workshop for churning a cheap labour force out of vulnerable children, education and nourishment are curtailed to a bare minimum in the name of social rehabilitation, while bullying, dishonesty, retaliation, and violence are encouraged as justified means of addressing issues of deprivation and marginality. 

Coetzee’s reader of course is no stranger to similar scenarios in his earlier books dealing more directly with the complex social and ethical dynamics of Post-Apartheid justice, reparation, and anarchy and lawlessness in the name of affirmative action. Thus at a football match the team from the orphanage is unfairly set to play against a group of much younger children in order to boost the morale of the disadvantaged youth: aggression and foul play are projected as legitimate tactics in the service of the larger cause of leveling the social field, and David’s position in this community of misplaced, corrupted ideals is that of a model specimen, the exemplary orphan whose talents, earnestness, and sensitivity are exploited by Fabricante to further hegemonise his cohort of docilised subjects, and illustrate to Estrella at large, the necessary value of his philanthropic projects.

When David emerges from his stint at the orphanage both disillusioned and critically ill, the hospital turns out to be yet another Kafkaesque labyrinth of incompetence disguised as obfuscatory mythification. The hospital staff includes a kindly but inept pediatrician Dr Ribeiro, a former psychopathic murderer turned penitent janitor Dmitri, and a self-righteous resident teacher, señora Devito who treats David with alternating condescension and reverence, dismissing his cherished fantasies as “extravagance” while claiming to be David’s chosen confidante. The supposed “mystery” of David’s “atypical” illness is approached by Ribeiro’s staff through a confused patois of medical and mystical vocabularies, both serving to reinforce his status as exceptional, anomalous, and belonging to an altogether different ontological realm: his blood type is deemed to be extremely rare and without a successful match, his disease seems to have an etiology and prognosis without scientific precedent, in Dmitri’s quixotic hallucinations (which the novel does not dismiss but offers as a credible possible alternative) David is “the lord” and saviour communicating with his followers in a coded language full of hidden meanings, whereas for senora Devito, David becomes a psychiatric case study for which she opportunely engages him in private conversations. In keeping with the allusions to allegorical reading then, David often seems to emerge as the figure of the “homo sacer,” the unassimilated and politically disenfranchised “bare life” who is excluded from the frameworks of socially intelligible and recognised personhood in order for him to be collectively given over to death with impunity and without accountability, and whose exceptionality then is that of the sacrificial being and not the politically marked citizen.

David himself oscillates between performing the role of the exemplar– especially in his bardic capacity as the hospital’s unofficial storyteller– and questioning the logic of this arbitrary imposition. At times his fascination with heroic fantasy and his penchant for magical thinking settles in comfortably with the structure of adult projections. Yet at other times, especially as his treatment fails, the novel depicts his interiority ravaged by loneliness, confusion, and crippling physical pain. It is a measure of the moral bankruptcy of the community at Estrella that the only way in which an imaginative and energetic boy of ten can occupy the poetic and oneiric spacetime of daydream, reverie, and enchantment is through the appropriation, fetishisation, and commodification of his faculties. 

David in the throes of suffering rebels against his elevation to the status of the chosen: “Why do I have to be that boy, Simón? I never wanted to be that boy with that name,” just as Simón and Inés at other times have to demand “normalcy” from a society that wants to seek its redemption, material and spiritual by scapegoating a young boy. In that sense David is at once an adumbration and a refutation of his parallel with the figure of Christ, inasmuch as he shares Christ’s passion but with the resistance, hesitation, and ambivalence of an ordinary boy. In death David is further abstracted, rendered spectacular as the orphanage forcibly claims his body and turns the event of his death into a grotesque morality play, while all over Estrella and its neighbouring areas there are riots demanding justice and social equality in David’s name.

The saving grace in the midst of this macabre absurdist spectacle comes from David’s classmates at Juan Sebastian’s Academy: a dance drama celebrating David’s extraordinarily fertile imagination and the special place of the child’s edition of Cervantes in his life. It is the graceful and tender choreography, the simple yet attentively composed dialogue, and the frank depiction of David’s tragicomic incorporation into the Biblical mythos, that brings about a tentative closure to the grieving parents. The children’s play is in stark contrast to both the sententious symbolism of the orphans’ ceremonial performance at David’s funeral, as well as Dmitri’s letters to Simón claiming privileged knowledge of David’s preternatural identity and transcendental message. The open-ended, self-reflexive fabrications of art offer solace, to David, and later to his parents, in the aesthetic object’s capacity to accommodate multiple realities and afford expressive space to the play of possibilities without casting upon these the structural constraints of a totalising design. These polymorphous interventions of art occur in a manner that is diametrically opposed to the ideologically laden grand narratives through which a particular culture attempts to order, homogenise, and render legible the messy realities of social iniquities and interpersonal omissions. 

It is in this connection that The Death of Jesus provides a subtle but powerful critique of modern apparatuses of biometric profiling in which individual singularity is diminished to an arbitrarily assigned number. David’s conflicted relationship with numbers and his affinity instead for the illusionistic, promiscuous, rule-defying world of Quixote is an indication, later asserted by Simón, of Coetzee’s critical view of the conversion of human lives to the dehumanising logic of numbers and body counts.

Ultimately however, The Death of Jesus refuses to offer neat conclusions. Is David a regular albeit a bit excitable child whose message turns out to be a childish reworking of the instructions at the back of a library book? Is his anxiety about passing without imparting his message connected thus to an anxiety about failing to occupy and participate in the fictional constituency that he so strongly identifies with, by inscribing his own critical interpretation of Don Quixote? Is the literalism of a cynic’s perception a better approach to the world or must we take metaphysical/metaphorical recourse to address the horrors and enormities of late capitalist modernity? The book leaves this open to debate. 

David is an anti-Scheherazade, the crux of his tragedy being his unfinished narrative, his removal from the scene of storytelling and thus the truncation of his narrative autonomy. David’s creative redeployment of the outlandish scenarios of Cervantes’ book in relation to his own life and situation, like Simón’s private love of dance, Juan Sebastian’s music, Inés’ experience of maternal affect, is a particular form of linguistic and narrative inhabitation through which he is able to effect a partial recuperation of the singularity of his life from the regimes that seek to number and categorise him even if the latter is in the form of an exaltation. With the last book of his Jesus trilogy, Coetzee in the manner of the trope of the truncated message, has pared the novel’s moral, political, and literary intervention into a sparse yet densely textured structure, while gently admonishing our obsession with gleaning clear and unambiguous conclusions from the many sided fabric of reality.

J. M. Coetzee. The Death of Jesus. Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 2019

Paromita Patranobish is an academic and writer based in Delhi. She has a PhD on Virginia Woolf, and echoing the spirit of Mrs Dalloway’s walk, likes to think of her writing as immersive journeys through routes traversing multiple sites and sources of belonging and fascination. She has been a Visiting Professor at Shiv Nadar University, Daulat Ram College, and Ambedkar University, Delhi. Her review essays and creative writing have been published in Scroll, Cafe Dissensus, Firstpost, The Assam Tribune, The Chakkar, and Feminism in India. Her camera remains a faithful companion of her itineraries. 

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