“What is it that we lack when we lack nothing, when we are sufficient unto ourselves? What is it that we miss when we are not in love?” “The Schooldays of Jesus”, J. M. Coetzee’s allegorical tale, raises many metaphysical questions.
David is six years old and is newly arrived in fictional Estrella with his parents Inés and Simón. They are fugitives, having violated the law by pulling David out of school due to behavioral issues and fleeing the town of Novilla. Coetzee does not tell us the geographic location of Estrella or Novilla. All we really know about either place is that Spanish is the most commonly spoken language. Simón describes Estrella as: “A city criss-crossed by the paths of immigrants: if they did not all live in hope, if they did not each have their quantum of hopefulness to add to the great sum, where would Estrella be?”
In “The Childhood of Jesus”, the precursor to The Schooldays of Jesus, Simón meets parent-less and nameless David on a boat, names him, arranges for Inés to be David’s mother and they form a family. Throughout The Schooldays of Jesus, Inés and Simón question their own relationship, while David questions whether they are actually a family. David periodically announces that Simón and Inés are not his parents and the novel delves into the nature of family through its various characters and their relationships.
Upon arriving in Estrella, Inés and Simón go to work in an orchard where David spends time with the children of the other workers. The orchard is owned by three unmarried sisters who take a liking to David and offer to pay his tuition to go to the Academy of Dance. Inés and Simón visit the Academy of Dance where they are told that “It is an academy devoted to the training of the soul through music and dance.” Although wishing for a more traditional education for David, the skeptical Inés and Simón enroll him.
The school is run by the young and beautiful Ana Magdalena Arroyo and her rarely present, musical genius husband, Juan Sebastian Arroyo. The school also takes boarders and a limited number of students live with the Arroyos. The Academy of Dance is situated next to an art museum, where a disheveled and unpleasant gentleman named Dmitri serves as the Principal Attendant. Dmitri also helps out at the Academy and is passionately in love with the beautiful Ana Magdalena.
After enrolling in the Academy David decides he wants to become a boarder and moves in with the Arroyos. He becomes an excellent dancer, but refuses to dance for Simón because “you don’t believe in it.” The ability to transcend the here and now through arts (dance) and the need for a higher level of spirituality, and perhaps morality (described as the soul) to attain that transcendence is a constant thread throughout the book. “It is the soul that brings grace to the dance, the soul that follows the rhythm, each step instinct with the next step and the next.”
Dmitri commits a violent act and lands in jail. Through his trial the novel also raises the issue of what is justice. “…it is the mission of the court to rehabilitate offenders, but how far should the court exert itself to rehabilitate an offender who does not want to be rehabilitated…”
The novel has a nightmarish surreal quality, attained through quirky dialogue, sketchy landscapes and intentionally superficial character development. Simón, a not quite here and now character, is referred to as he, or him throughout the novel, emphasizing the emptiness and uncertainty he feels, making him inaccessible to the reader. The novel raises many philosophical questions without making any effort to answer them. If you are a Coetzee fan, as I am, this is a must read. If you are not a Coetzee fan, this is probably not the place to start. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11237737__Schildhood%20of%20jesus__P0%2C1__Orightresult__X3?lang=eng&suite=gold