The Schooldays
of Jesus

By J.M. Coetzee

Viking. 260 pp. $27 nolead ends

nolead begins

Reviewed by

Ron Charles

In 2003, the South African writer J.M. Coetzee won the Nobel Prize in literature. But since then, his fiction has strained mightily to repel any reader who might be interested.

The Schooldays of Jesus

, Coetzee's new novel, is a sequel to his equally enigmatic book

The Childhood of Jesus

(2013). You can be forgiven for assuming these novels follow the life of, say, Jesus. But a working familiarity with the Gospels will provide little context for interpreting this ongoing saga.

There is a precocious child, but he's known as David, and he's not Jewish, nor is he graced with any unusual shine of divinity. In Childhood, he is informally adopted by a man named Simón, who is determined to find the boy's mother. They settle on a woman named Inés and set up what passes for a chaste little family.

As Schooldays begins, this odd trio are "fugitives from the law," running from overzealous authorities and an impending census. It's tempting to imagine this is an allusion to Caesar's decree mentioned in Luke, but resist! - only frustration lies in that direction. The details of these novels cannot be matched up in any schematic way with the events of Jesus' life. Some readers may find this dissonance freeing. To me, it's irritatingly coy.

The most satisfying parts of the novel come early, as Simón struggles to give David the love and direction he needs. Coetzee has an impeccable ear for the tender patter between a curious child and a conscientious father figure who never wants to lose his patience.

But these pleasures are soon eclipsed by other matters. Anxious about David's education, Simón and Inés decide to send the boy to the Dance Academy, which professes a strikingly unorthodox theory of mathematics. David loves the staff and seems destined to be the school's finest student.

Alas, this headache-inducing gibberish is soon overwhelmed by the rantings of a sex criminal named Dmitri who used to work at the academy. At his trial - and through several tedious reappearances that could make you a death-penalty supporter - we endure long, repetitive discussions about the mystery of why he killed the woman he loved.

There's no denying the haunting quality of Coetzee's prose, his ability to suspend ordinary events in a world just a few degrees away from our own. But to what end? Although The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus are presented as allegories, they never yield any interesting meaning. The result is a story that suggests more profundity than it ever incarnates.

This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.