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The passion of David: Review of J.M. Coetzee’s ‘The Death of Jesus’

Wounded: John Everett Millais’ allegorical painting, ‘Christ in the House of his Parents’.

Wounded: John Everett Millais’ allegorical painting, ‘Christ in the House of his Parents’.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

The third instalment of Coetzee’s Jesus trilogy is riddled with metaphysical holes into which readers keep falling. Or do they?

Clad in skyblue pyjamas, the patients from the children’s ward of the city hospital of Estrella gather around ten-year-old David, to be regaled with symbolic tales revolving round Don Quixote — the only book he has read. David, battling a rare degenerative disease, tells his enthralled audience that “nothing bad happens to Don Quixote”. David’s magnetic capacity to attract an audience even as the threat of an untimely death looms over him leaves most readers hunting for some profound communication in the third instalment of J.M. Coetzee’s Jesus trilogy, The Death of Jesus.

Alone in the world

The book continues the allegorical journey of its protagonist that started in The Childhood of Jesus (2013), followed by The Schooldays of Jesus (2016). The novel opens, rather unassumingly, with David’s brilliant display of skills in a friendly football match. This endears him to Dr. Julio Fabricante, the owner of the orphanage, Las Manos. The narrative suggests that David’s dancing lessons have given him the decisive edge on the football field, as they help him combine “good balance” with sporting skills.

Dr. Fabricante’s inaugural conversation with David’s adoptive father, Simon, sets the tone for the novel, pinpointing the fundamental question regarding the identity of an orphan:

“What does it mean to be an orphan? Does it simply mean that you are without visible parents? No. To be an orphan, at the deepest level, is to be alone in the world. So in a sense we are all orphans, for we are all, at the deepest level, alone in the world.”

David will subsequently question his own identity as an orphan, much to the resentment of his adoptive parents, Simon and Ines. He eventually abandons them, taking refuge in Dr. Fabricante’s orphanage. David’s estrangement with Simon and Ines ends when he sustains a debilitating injury on the football field. It triggers off a mysterious illness, causing him to be admitted to the city hospital under the care of Dr. Ribeiro.

Talking to Dr. Ribeiro, David recounts his fall on the football field and his earlier unreported “falls”: “I feel nice. It is like being drunk. I hear sounds.” The sounds that David claims to hear are: “Singing. And chimes that go clink in the wind.” Is David a traumatised child or is he just being precocious? Dr. Ribeiro’s diagnosis of David’s fictional Saporta syndrome — “a neuropathy of the adynamic variety” — is believed to be genetic. As David continues to deteriorate and struggle, confined for the rest of his short life in the city hospital, he repeatedly asks his adoptive parents: “Why am I here?”

Elusive message

David is racked with horrific seizures as his condition worsens, leading to the inevitable. Following his demise, the little quests of his friends and near ones to decipher the elusive ‘message’ he left behind take up the rest of the novel.

Here the narrative sinks into an abyss of metaphysical speculations on life, death, and the continuity of life after death. Readers are obviously lured to correlate David’s death to the title of the story. Miracles don’t abound in the novel, though occasional ones are hinted at.

It is at David’s intervention that Bolivar the dog and Jeremiah the lamb are at peace with each other, much in tune with the biblical proclamation: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).

Beyond the apparent and the occasionally far-fetched religious parallelisms, the answer to the allegorical matrix of Coetzee’s tale perhaps lies in David’s obsession with Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which is all about the eternal human quest at betterment, notwithstanding the impracticality of this adventure.

Coetzee raises fundamental questions of existence: the perennial conflict between romantic entrapment and harsh reality; the call of the individual self and the pressure of societal conformity; the various incompatible systems of morality; the problematic notion of sanity; and, finally, the universal relevance of great literature in human civilisation. In all this, one cannot get rid of the uncomfortable feeling that Coetzee is playing with the gullible reader. If the post-modernist reality is a ‘game’, then Coetzee proves himself to be the star gamer.

The reviewer is Dean of Arts at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata.

The Death of Jesus; J.M. Coetzee, Penguin Random House, ₹799

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Printable version | Jul 10, 2020 8:02:43 PM |

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