J.M. Coetzee’s Essential Protestantism

J.M. Coetzee’s Essential Protestantism

With Fear and Trembling

The essential Protestantism of J.M. Coetzee’s late fiction.


When J.M. Coetzee published The Childhood of Jesus in 2013, critics received it with respectful bafflement. The book tells the story of a man named Simón, who arrives in the Spanish-speaking city of Novilla in the company of a young boy named David. Together, they must navigate the strange place in which they find themselves—a theoretically perfect society in which everyone is fed, housed, and has a job, as in the socialist millennium, but where the food is unappetizing, the housing meager and unattractive, and the work harsh and tiring. Soon it becomes clear that Novilla is situated in some kind of afterlife, where souls are reborn stripped of their earthly memories and desires.

Clearly, critics deduced, The Childhood of Jesus was allegory—but for what? Writing in The New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates observed that it was “a Kafka-inspired parable of the quest for meaning itself.” In The Guardian, Benjamin Markovits put it more bluntly: The novel was “an elaborate rope trick.” In particular, reviewers had a hard time connecting Coetzee’s story with the novel’s title, since Jesus Christ is not a character in the book or even mentioned in it. “None of the characters,” Jason Farago observed in the New Republic, even appeared to be “especially Christian.”

Neither parable nor difficulty, of course, is new for Coetzee. In his 1980 novel Waiting for the Barbarians, he set his tale outside any recognizable history, in the outpost of a nameless empire that could be Roman or British, ancient or modern. In Life & Times of Michael K, he sent his protagonist on a Kafka­esque journey through a dream version of South Africa. And in Slow Man, he tore open what begins as a conventional novel by introducing the novelist Elizabeth Costello as his alter ego, allowing him to exist in the book as creator and creation at once. Even more than its allegorical riddles, however, what makes The Childhood of Jesus a characteristic 
Coetzee novel is its plain style and its atmosphere of intense moral seriousness—what might be called his essential Protestantism.

Coetzee’s Protestantism is a matter of lineage and culture: He’s a descendant of the Dutch Reformed settlers in South Africa who became the Afrikaners. But it is also, he makes clear in his memoirs, a matter of personality and sensibility. In Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life, Coetzee writes about the moment when he was asked to declare his religion at school. Rather than call himself a Christian—that is, a Protestant, like most of the boys—he claimed to be a Catholic, even though he barely understood what Catholicism was. Even at a young age, Coetzee intuited that to declare oneself a Catholic in a Protestant culture was a form of protest—as was choosing to side with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, when everyone around him was pro-American.

What Coetzee faced was the problem of how to dissent from a religious culture that itself was founded on an act of dissent. One can follow in the tradition of Martin Luther and John Calvin by joining one of the churches they founded—but to truly emulate the Protestant rebels, one might also have to rebel against them in turn. This dynamic lies at the heart of modern Protestant theology, which tries again and again to find Christ by breaking with established Christianity; and it also lies at the center of Coetzee’s work, and never more so than in The Childhood of Jesus and its sequel, The Schooldays of Jesus.

In Boyhood, Coetzee recalls that his own childhood relationship to Jesus was a combination of disbelief and an odd kind of intimacy. “Though he himself is an atheist and has always been one,” 
Coetzee writes, referring to himself in the third person, “he feels he understands Jesus better” than his religion teacher does. “He does not particularly like Jesus—Jesus flies into rages too easily—but he is prepared to put up with him.” Still, Coetzee finds himself drawn to Jesus, in particular when he comes to the point in the Gospel of Luke when the sepulcher is discovered to be empty: “If he were to unblock his ears and let the words come through to him, he knows, he would have to stand on his seat and shout in triumph. He would have to make a fool of himself forever.”

It is this kind of foolishness—this rejection of worldly wisdom, in the spirit of Jesus’s own exhortation to imitate the lilies of the field—that Coetzee dramatizes in his two Jesus novels. For as Childhood and Schooldays develop, it becomes increasingly clear that the figure of David is meant to illustrate, or incarnate, the scandalous freedom of Jesus’s teachings. Yet Coetzee brings out the parallels with a light, even teasing touch.

For instance, at the outset of Childhood, Simón tells everyone who will listen that he is not David’s father; rather, he met the boy on the ship that brought them to Novilla, and his mission is to reunite the child with his mother, which he is certain he can do, though he doesn’t know her name or what she looks like. Soon enough, Simón decides that he has found her in Inés, a woman with no recollection of David and no obvious qualifications for motherhood. After some initial reluctance, Inés agrees to take charge of David, only to find that this unusual child is difficult to raise—especially when it comes to school, where he exhibits an unsettling combination of brilliance and simplicity. When a teacher seeks to transfer the troubled David to a boarding school with a menacing reputation, Inés and Simón take him and flee; the book ends with them on the road to a new life elsewhere.

In its bare outlines, it is already possible to see how this story echoes the Gospels. David, like Jesus, has no human father. Inés accepts him as Mary accepts the Annunciation from the angel Gabriel—with fear and trembling. Then the state tries to persecute him, forcing this improvised Holy Family to flee Novilla in a replay of the flight into Egypt.

But it is not primarily Jesus’s biography that Coetzee wants us to think about. This is why he chooses to focus on a period of Jesus’s life that goes almost entirely undescribed in the Gospels. Rather, Coetzee is asking the essential Protestant question: How can the scandal, the strangeness, the exigency of Jesus’s message be recovered, when Christianity has become synonymous with the establishment? Coetzee presents Novilla as a society in which all problems have been solved, and he wants to know what happens when Jesus is born into a kind of paradise. How can the antinomian power of his message confront a world in which everyone lives happily according to the law?

The answer comes in the character of David, who is defined by his ingenuous stubbornness. Simón, though he is not the boy’s father, assumes the role of teaching him the hard facts of life—about duty, justice, work, and death. Yet whenever he tries to impart such a lesson, David confounds him by simply rejecting the premise. When another of David’s teachers tells him to write “I must tell the truth,” the boy writes instead, “Yo soy la verdad, I am the truth.”

In The Schooldays of Jesus, Coetzee continues to explore this fictional universe and the ways it reflects the tensions within the Protestant tradition. But now his emphasis has shifted from the rebellion of David to the spiritual quest of Simón. The new book begins as David, Inés, and Simón start over in Estrella, a distant town, after fleeing Novilla and the demands of its educational system. While Novilla was defined by what it lacked—tasty food, sex, pleasure, imagination—Estrella feels much more like a real place: Its inhabitants seem to eat, drink, and work much as we do. As a result, Schooldays becomes a more conventional novel than its predecessor. Rather than the experience of a child’s radical newness, in Schooldays we chart the more familiar terrain of life as a middle-aged adult, facing the familiar decline into irrelevance and death.

Early in the novel, after an idyllic interlude working on a farm, Inés and Simón decide to enroll David in a new kind of school, Estrella’s Academy of Dance. Much of the imaginative apparatus of the book has to do with the peculiar kind of teaching that goes on in this institution, which is led by the beautiful Señora Arroyo.

In both of the Jesus books, Coetzee emphasizes that David is unable to think about numbers in the ordinary way. He cannot add and subtract, because for him each number is an individual reality, an incommensurable presence. This is of a piece with his divine perspective on the world—and it carries a suggestion of the Trinity, in which one plus one plus one equals one. Thus, in Schooldays, when David is given math tutoring by one Señor Robles, he is unable to accept that two pens and two pills have something in common, their twoness: “But they aren’t the same two,” he objects.

This metaphysical focus on numbers is highly Platonic; indeed, if Protestantism’s dissenting tradition is the guiding spirit of Childhood, the sequel is equally interested in Platonism, with its vision of a universe structured by concepts. At school, David learns that numbers are ideas that reside in the heavens: “the noble numbers and their auxiliaries, too many to count, as many as the stars, numbers born out of the unions of noble numbers.” The dances taught by Señora Arroyo have the power to invoke or incarnate these numbers, so that the children are said to dance the “Number Two” or the “Number Three.”

David takes immediately to this—so much so that he insists on becoming a boarder at the school, to the dismay of Simón and Inés, who begin to drift apart.

As all this unworldly teaching is taking place at the Academy of Dance, a sordid human drama is unfolding on its margins—a kind of sexual intrigue that could never happen in Novilla, but seems right at home in the postlapsarian world of Estrella.

Halfway through the book, Coetzee turns our attention to a new character: Dmitri, the doorman of the museum where the school is located. Tawdry and disheveled, a tempting but frightening figure, Dmitri is in the habit of inviting the young students to his room to look at pornography. He confides to Simón that he is desperately in love with Señora Arroyo, who in her purity and loveliness seems his opposite in every way. Finally, his passion overflows into violence, and Dmitri rapes and murders her. (David is the one who discovers her con­torted body.)

In The Childhood of Jesus, Coetzee dwells at length on Don Quixote, which is young David’s favorite book. Cervantes’s novel becomes a kind of interlocutor to 
Coetzee’s, as both the don and David act with a Jesus-like defiance of conventional reality. In The Schooldays of Jesus, a similar role is played by a book that is never named but that, in the wake of this horrendous act, becomes clear: The Brothers Karamazov.

Coetzee’s Dmitri resembles his Dostoyevskian namesake: He has the same antic, ranting shamelessness, the same mixture of criminality and holy-foolishness. (Another, more minor character—a teacher at the school of dance—is named Alyosha, as if to provide an extra hint.) And like Dostoyevsky, Coetzee asks us whether we are able to extend our sympathy to such a loathsome figure.

Simón has always been guided by his cautious common sense, and he initially can’t see anything redeemable in Dmitri. “Dmitri is not a good person with a good heart,” he tells David. “He says he wants to be saved, but the only way to be saved is to save oneself, and Dmitri is too lazy, too satisfied with the way he is, to do that.” But of course, this is the kind of rational thinking that David rejects in favor of the Christian principle that nobody can save himself, that grace is given to all, even sinners.

During the drama of Dmitri’s trial, imprisonment, and subsequent escape, 
Coetzee once again mounts the Protestant challenge, which makes the respectable vicious and demands that we sympathize with the outcast. Perhaps the criminal, in his reckless passion and self-abasement, is actually closer to God than the tepid, law-abiding citizen? Doesn’t Revelation promise that God will spit out the lukewarm soul?

By the end of The Schooldays of Jesus, even Simón seems ready to open his eyes to the irrational and the numinous. The last scene shows him beginning, in his awkward, middle-aged way, to learn how to dance the Platonic numbers—embodying an abstract idea in the physical world in a way that came so easily to the young David. “I stumble along behind, hoping for the day to come when my eyes will be opened and I will behold the world as it really is,” he says near the end of the book.

Having earlier resembled the angel Gabriel, who announced Jesus’s birth, and Joseph, who was and was not Jesus’s father, Simón now begins to sound like his actual Gospel namesake, Simeon. This is the old man who, at the beginning of the Book of Luke, recognizes the infant Jesus as the savior he has longed to see: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”

Even at the end of this second volume, it remains uncertain exactly how Coetzee means us to think about David and his relationship to Jesus. Is David the Christ of the next world, who will grow up to be its savior? Is he, perhaps, the reincarnation of the historical Jesus?

But as with his earlier fiction, the meaning and power of Coetzee’s Jesus novels don’t require such a literal interpretation. It is enough if we understand them as his playful, yet intensely serious, interpretation of the Gospel message and the Protestant tradition—a muted and mysterious version of the “shout in triumph” he was tempted, a lifetime ago, to utter.

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