Sometimes the web of obscurity becomes visibly so obvious to the viewer that such obscurity emerges as clarity. It may also occur to the readers of such ambiguous works of literature, who elicit the vaguely clear understanding from their reading and find themselves at the luminosity of meanings. J.M. Coetzee gravitationally exhibits such gleams of transcendence in his novels with a great deal of philosophical enquiry that puts numerous unanswered questions to the readers. His most recent Man Booker long-listed novel, The School Days of Jesus carries an intricate story, with no exceptional landscape though, unravelling the life of complex characters whose origins are unknown; they have no past. If this novel procures him the Booker Prize to be declared in October, he will become the first writer to have bagged the three Bookers for his literary creations; and it was for his fiction that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003 .Of course, the School Days of Jesus seems a strong contender for the Booker Prize so it becomes interesting to look into it for what carries the novel to this height.
This novel is a sequel to The Childhood of Jesus which follows a story of a man named Simón migrating to a Spanish speaking country Novilla. When travelling, Simón finds a five year old boy, Davíd with no parents on the boat. The child had a letter that he lost it which had the links to where his mother is and, of whom he remembers nothing now but he persists if he sees his mother, he will make her out. Once Simón comes across a woman playing tennis, a stranger to him, he decides to unite with this “blank slate, a virgin slate,” woman named Inés to make her David's mother. Inés also concurs with him to be the child's mother and they assemble themselves as a complete family and start living together in a flat. She begins tending to David as her own child and has burgeoning love for him. When the authorities force them to send David to a distant school, they flee Novilla to escape the compulsion of placing their child in a faraway school. The Childhood of Jesus ends with their escape to a strange country.
This is where from the School Days of Jesus sets off its journey; they have come to Estrella which “is no more than a sprawling provincial town set in a countryside of hills and fields and orchards, with a sluggish river meandering through it” Coetzee provides a brisk motion to the story with no hindrance of further topographical details as abound in the novels of VS Naipaul that is sometimes indispensable to uphold the charm of fiction to intersect reality. Lack of complexities of common realities may cut down the pleasure implicit in the imaginations of daily life but the novel is teemed with the insightful Socratic dialogues happening especially between Simón and Davíd.
The family starts living life anew in Estrella with no past- “when you travel across ocean on the boat, all your memories are washed away and you start completely a new life. There is no before. There is no history. The boat docks at the harbor and we climb down the gangplank and we plunge into the here and now. Time begins. The clock starts running” says Simón. What philosophy Coetzee develops here seems too abstruse to understand though it seems as he might be alluding to the philosophy of reincarnation. Another baffling situation comes up to reader when the novel is found standing at the threshold of allegory and non-allegory; David, a motherless child may be the Jesus of the title but there is no other facts by what reader may conjecture that it is an allegory. David is not only the one who has no parents and no history, all other characters are also with no past that becomes difficult to surmise if it is really an allegory or the writer is hinting at some existential philosophy. Coetzee leaves out such voids between the pages to be filled by the readers' imagination.
Simón finds work at a farmhouse owned by three sisters who, seeing the utmost discretion in Daivd, ask his newly found parents to send him for his education to The Academy of Dance where Ana Magdalena a childless graceful woman like “a serene angels who live on nectar” teaches “the dance of the universe”. Academy's soul dedication is to guide the students to some kind of transcendental realm of numbers where body and soul dance together “as to bring the numbers to life”. Again a riddle to the reader, If Coetzee is alluding to the 'Dance of Jesus' in the Acts of John or he figures out spiritual power of dance leading the one to redemption. At the end of the story, after many upheavals in his life, Simón also tries to learn the dance with “arms extended, eyes closed he scuffles in a slow circle” and the book shuts down.
The whole novel is a mystery inciting ecstatic curiosity that at the next page writer will demystify it but every demystification becomes another mystery. Coetzee provides no alluring adventurous fantasies, he leaves his reader in a quandary with enigmatic Coetzeean philosophy. From the inception to the end Coetzee gives no trace of character's religion, national identity or cultural practices; Estrella, a socialist state having no history, reflects the glimpses of socialist utopian state.
There are no barriers of unintelligible language in the entire novel which may break the flow of reading despite few Spanish words are uttered. The pages are interspersed with philosophical puzzles that may sound off-putting sometimes but Coetzee has really the artistry of lumping together philosophy with fiction so mesmerisingly, it becomes a telling feature of his work. It's not the book for the lovers of fantastic tales but it is for the erudite readers loving philosophical fiction.