J.M. Coetzee’s States of Exile

A Form of Exile

J.M. Coetzee’s late style.


A man and a boy arrive before a low, sprawling building, hurrying to enter before it closes for the day. The place is a government office of some kind, a Centro de Reubicación in a fictional town called Novilla. Speaking in halting Spanish and unfamiliar with the word reubicación, the man asks the clerk for help. He is seeking employment and a place to live. “We are new arrivals,” he tells the functionary. “I have a child with me.”

So begins The Childhood of Jesus, the first in a trilogy of novels by J.M. Coetzee that continues with The Schooldays of Jesus and comes to a perplexing climax in The Death of Jesus. What is it like to start life anew? the first novel asks. The two that follow extend this line of inquiry, working into it questions of education and labor, of parenting and love, even if the overall conclusion remains ambiguous. The novels offer no definitive answers, although they do suggest that within this trilogy-length puzzle of what it means to begin, one might find the even bigger question of what the art of the novel means for Coetzee at this stage of his prolific career.

The opening lines of the first novel, with their sparse but carefully chosen details, prepare the reader for a kind of stripped-down realism. The Spanish relocation center is inspired, one assumes, by the global refugee crisis in Southern Europe. The reader is primed, almost by force of habit, to think of overcrowded camps along the Mediterranean, of displaced humans making their slow, painful way north, hoping against hope to secure the benefits reluctantly offered by the residual welfare states of Europe. And because the series bears the aura of Jesus’s name, one also expects a touch of allegory, the kind of symbolism beloved of the dominant writers, artists, and human rights campaigners of our time. A liberal message about Jesus resurrected and retrofitted for our contemporary turbulence, one thinks. What could be a more apt response to authoritarian demagogues and their border walls? Jesus, after all, was a refugee.

Yet as we make our own uncertain way through the trilogy, we begin to realize that the contemporary refugee crisis provides little more than a rudimentary scaffold for the questions Coetzee is interested in pursuing. We see the occasional obtuseness of the city bureaucracy, the generosity of the stevedores among whom Simón, the man, finds work carrying sacks of grain, and the eccentricity of the neighbors encountered by David, the child, at the housing complex where the new arrivals are assigned an apartment. Throughout, we look for the clues that might give us insight into the trilogy’s titles, the signs that might be portents. And yet steadily, almost every element of the novels’ interpretive schema crumbles, before it completely falls apart.

Simón, it turns out, is not David’s father but a fellow refugee met on their boat. His mother is believed to be somewhere in Novilla, but they have no name or description for her, even though Simón believes he will recognize her by instinct. And as he and David go about their existence, life in Novilla turns out to be safe but dull. The diet is composed mostly of bread, the labor largely manual, the interactions among adults more or less devoid of erotic charge. Workers can attend philosophy classes, and all the buses are free. We begin to realize that Coetzee has led us into—rather than an allegory of our contemporary world or a representation of Jesus’s—an in-between nowhere place, a mildly oppressive utopia or a relatively humane dystopia, a paradoxical realm where human beings arrive, no matter their age, as if they had just been born.

Readers of Coetzee have been in such a world before, although it may take them a while to realize it. In 2003, the year he received the Nobel Prize, he published the beguiling Elizabeth Costello. Structured as a series of lectures delivered by its eponymous protagonist, a writer and fierce campaigner for animal rights, the novel features talks that had been delivered by Coetzee, a vegetarian who has written about animal rights. And if this metafictional slippage is insufficient, Elizabeth Costello goes even further: It includes a dazzling chapter, “At the Gate,” that is a reworking of the “Before the Law” episode in Kafka’s The Trial.

In contrast with the realist locations where Costello delivers her lectures, mostly colleges and universities in the West, this final chapter presents her disembarking from a bus in a town that has not much specificity to it and whose minimalist features (cafés, a windowless dormitory for new arrivals, and a bandstand on which the musicians play Strauss waltzes) seem to belong to “an obscure Italian or Austro-Italian border town in the year 1912.” Costello, otherwise our contemporary, has, it seems, slipped into a time that is not historical so much as an amalgamation of the literary and the metaphysical. Beyond the gate lies the great unknown, visible to her—when a guard allows her a peek—only as a flash of blinding light. “The journey that brought her here, to this country, to this town, that seemed to reach its end when the bus halted and its door opened on to the crowded square, was not the end of it all.”

One wonders if her arrival is a gesture toward the afterlife. Many of the novel’s lectures, after all, are concerned with questions of aging, physical decline, and death. But if so, this gesture comes with a twist: When asked by the authorities in charge of the gate to write a statement of her faith, Costello has trouble articulating this in a manner both truthful and emotionally satisfying to her. God has failed in her world, as has socialism; she cannot even quite believe in art anymore. And so the novel ends, leaving us with a question: What is the afterlife for those who do not believe in one?

This question of belief and its absence—aesthetic and metaphysical—animates the Jesus trilogy as well. Like Elizabeth Costello, the novels take place in a world that veers away from realism as well as allegory. Even if a Kafkaesque realm circa 1912 is not quite the setting, Novilla and Estrella, where Simón and David move later, are cities that deliberately deny the contemporary. There are televisions but no cellphones, cars but no aircraft, soccer but no Internet. Yet what makes the Jesus novels even more disorienting, perhaps, is that their rejection of realism and contemporary reality comes not at the end point of a life, as with Elizabeth Costello, but is instead inserted into an existence that is both at its beginning and its end, where the arc of a life flashes by so quickly that one might wonder if it existed at all.

Five years old in The Childhood of Jesus, David is 10 by the time the trilogy comes to a close. In those five years of living, the questions about art, God, morality, and politics that so troubled Costello abound. Now, however, they are inflected with an even greater ambiguity. Seen largely through the eyes of Simón, one of a series of father figures encountered in the novels, David is an unsettling character for the reader. In the first novel, he is initially portrayed as an ordinary child, understandably bereft in his new, bewildering surroundings, his metaphysical questions only as troubling as those encountered from the lips of anyone that age. Yet Coetzee is only sporadically interested in interiority and relationships, and the trilogy takes the first of its many perverse turns when Simón, against the desperate protestations of David, hands him over, along with the apartment he has been allotted by the Novilla bureaucracy, to a woman called Inés.

Even though Inés is clearly not David’s biological mother or particularly maternal—her days until then involved playing tennis with her two brothers in the company of a German shepherd called Bolívar—Simón is certain that this is the mother David was destined to have. At first reluctant to assume such a role, Inés eventually accepts this responsibility, even as David’s behavior puts him at odds with a series of educational institutions. Although this leads at the end of the first book to Inés and Simón’s fleeing with David, his resistance to all but the most unconventional forms of pedagogy persists in The Schooldays of Jesus, where David, now nearly 7, has enrolled in what is called the Academy of Dance. There he falls under the tutelage of a mysterious musician, Señor Arroyo, and his charismatic wife, Ana Magdalena, and can finally indulge his singular epistemology, which revolves around the notions that the only book worth reading is Don Quixote and that numbers are connected to the stars. When he performs his special “dance of Seven” at an academy gathering, the effect is uncanny: “As if the earth has lost its downward power, the boy seems to shed all bodily weight,” Simón observes, “to become pure light.”

As we make our way through The Schooldays of Jesus, we begin to realize there is more than just the ethereal to David. His resistance to learning and his difficult relationship with adults contain something other than trauma, something that seems to be almost a thought experiment on Coetzee’s part, a dismissal of theories of both nature and nurture in relation to the development of a child. Characters flit in and out of David’s penumbra, the other children reduced mostly to bit parts. Toward Simón, who often comes across as pedantic and affectless, David is willful and dismissive. Inés, he treats as his follower.

Then there is Dmitri, encountered first as a doorman at the Academy of Dance, a large, slovenly figure given to showing pornography to the children and fixated on Ana Magdalena. David, who seems strangely drawn to him, becomes even more interested after Dmitri sexually assaults and murders Ana Magdalena. A long, confusing trial leads not so much to Dmitri’s incarceration as to frequent encounters between him and David, whom Dmitri considers his “king.”

The Death of Jesus picks up their stories after the trial. With the Academy of Dance temporarily shut down, David takes to soccer. Revealing himself to be a gifted winger on the field, he is scouted by a man who runs an orphanage. David moves there, abandoning Simón and Inés, but his tenure as a player at the orphanage proves to be brief, and soon he is reacquainted with Dmitri: A mysterious ailment leads to a long hospitalization for David, and Dmitri resurfaces as a hospital worker. The doctors are unable to diagnose David’s illness, and midway through the novel comes the death signposted in the title. This is a bold move for any novelist, but David’s death brings no closure. Instead, the mystery continues, as Dmitri believes himself to be the sole recipient of a message from David, even if the content of that message, he writes in a long letter to Simón, “is still obscure.” For Simón, struggling with sorrow after David’s death and leafing through their copy of Don Quixote as if it were “a relic,” there is no message at all or at least none that can ever be known. The question of faith and its absence that we saw in Elizabeth Costello returns but in even more contradictory fashion, leaving us with almost nothing beyond the fact of the labor that has produced this puzzling trilogy.

Writing about the works produced in the twilight of an artist’s career, Edward Said marked out for special scrutiny those in which the artist’s “late style” was expressed “not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction.” Building on a phrase and idea taken from Adorno, Said used Ibsen to make his point. Ibsen’s final plays—in particular When We Dead Awaken—offer, in contrast with Shakespeare, not harmony, Said explains, but only “an occasion to stir up more anxiety, tamper irrevocably with the possibility of closure, and leave the audience more perplexed and unsettled than before.” As description, this seems quite apt for Coetzee’s Jesus trilogy, which raises so many questions and offers almost no definitive answers.

One wonders, for instance, in spite of the intermittent allegorical elements, whether the problem being wrestled with here is art rather than religion. It is an interpretation given some weight by the recurrent, quasi-talismanic status of Don Quixote and by the possible reading of David as a variation on its archetypal fictional protagonist as much as a version of Jesus of Nazareth, a boyish echo of the late knight of La Mancha. If David is adrift, it is perhaps also because he is traveling through a form that, while new to Cervantes, is undeniably worn some four centuries later in the hands of Coetzee.

Much of Coetzee’s career has, in fact, tilted at the windmills of literary realism. The struggle is there in his first book, 1974’s Dusklands, with its twinned but stylistically quite different novellas that take on the Vietnam War and colonialism in southern Africa. The campaign is continued in anti-apartheid works like Waiting for the Barbarians and Life and Times of Michael K. Only in his most popular novel, Disgrace, does he offer us something of an exception, one that comes across as the norm only because its thematically freighted realism—of white masculinity in postapartheid South Africa—was rewarded by prize committees, winning its author the Booker for a second time as well as reliable placement in liberal arts curricula everywhere.

Coetzee’s angular relationship with realism has grown only more acute after he was awarded the Nobel and moved from South Africa to Australia. His subsequent fictional works appear to campaign against realism with even greater intensity. Elizabeth Costello was followed by Slow Man, another novel about the aging body that also features Costello, who appears a third of the way through, claiming that its protagonist is a character in a novel she is working on. Coetzee’s challenge to the realist form found its most singular expression in 2007’s Diary of a Bad Year. Riffing on Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year—a work that suddenly has its own ominous valence—Coetzee produced not so much a novel as an extended set of essays on the modern state. The narrative element reduced mostly to footnotes, the main text of the novel involved a series of treatises by Señor C, a writer who, like Coetzee, has just immigrated to Australia from South Africa and who excoriates Anglo-American democracy for its self-congratulatory rhetoric even as it leaves in its wake the wreckage of the Iraq War, Abu Ghraib, and Guantánamo.

If not realist, though, there was no doubt that Coetzee was addressing the moment in Diary of a Bad Year. There was no escape or evasion here, only a fiercely moral intelligence that has been in operation since his earliest works of fiction, a courage to take on the same liberal Anglo-American world that has, by and large, celebrated his status as an artist. The Jesus trilogy, however, while rejecting realism, seems also to jettison the contemporary world. Readers must make their way through a series of novels that do not seem to pose political questions and whose metaphysics often appear to pertain to a realm far removed from that of humanity. There are barely any reference points, only a bewildering succession of Spanish names in a land that could be anywhere vaguely European and where all the characters—other than perhaps David, the boy knight-king—are devoid of memories.

So, just as the past is more or less absent, the present in the Jesus novels (and in particular the final one) is not fully substantial, either. In spite of the housing and work and food provided to new arrivals, everyone is in some deep sense unhoused. Different as the adult characters Simón, Inés, and Dmitri may be from one another, they all give the impression of wandering through the fragmentary remnants of modernity—the state, the novel, and realism. They are in exile in a manner that sidesteps the contemporary questions we thought in the beginning they were intended to examine: border control regimes, displaced people from the Global South, the new authoritarianism.

There is no reason to believe, given Coetzee’s long writing career, that he is not opposed to the latest manifestations of cruelty expressed by the modern state. But the Jesus novels also suggest that the estrangement felt by their characters—and by us as readers—while disquieting and profound, occupies an uneasy relationship to our alienation from the contemporary. In Diary of a Bad Year, Señor C talks about a helpless “quietism” that has become the norm for citizens of modern Western democracies, an “inner emigration.” But in writing an allegory that is barely an allegory and a trilogy of novels that are often not novels, Coetzee appears to have made his own literary displacement total, external as well as internal. Drawing on Adorno, Said spoke of difficult late works as constituting, for the intransigent artist, “a form of exile.” Coetzee’s late work is exemplary in that regard.

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