With his new novel, The Death of Jesus, J.M. Coetzee brings to a close one of the most fascinating experiments in recent fiction, and one of the most misunderstood. The book is the third installment in a trilogy that began with The Childhood of Jesus in 2013 and continued through The Schooldays of Jesus in 2017. Judging by their titles, it would be natural to assume that these books retell the story of Jesus in novelistic form, in the grand if faded tradition of Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Lew Wallace’s 1880 epic was hugely popular among Americans who knew the New Testament and its stories practically from birth; Ben Hur ranks as one of the bestselling books in U.S. history, alongside Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Gone with the Wind.
But the Jesus of the New Testament doesn’t appear in Coetzee’s novels at all, which is a big part of the reason why critics have been so annoyed by them. The perplexity inspired by The Childhood of Jesus was at least respectful; reviewers reached for words like “puzzling” and “enigmatic,” leaving open the possibility that Coetzee was up to something, even if they didn’t understand what. After two more books, however, many have lost patience. The Guardian described The Death of Jesus as “a barren end to a bizarre trilogy,” while The Times of London called Coetzee “the high priest of obfuscation.”
It’s true that Coetzee has always been a challenging writer. The moral austerity of his work seems to draw on the Calvinism of his Afrikaner ancestors, honed to razor sharpness by his reaction against the immorality of apartheid South Africa. In one way or another, most of Coetzee’s novels are about corruption: military and political in Waiting for the Barbarians, social and sexual in Disgrace. In the last 20 years, his work has turned increasingly essayistic as he grapples directly with moral questions. In Elizabeth Costello, the title character gives a lecture about animal rights that was originally delivered by Coetzee himself at Princeton.
By comparison, the Jesus novels are almost playful in their use of allegory and allusion. Realism and fable have always competed for primacy in Coetzee’s work, but here fable definitely has the upper hand: These books are set in an explicitly unreal world, full of mysteries that are never resolved. Like other great artists in the late stages of their careers, Coetzee has grown less didactic and masterful, more interested in asking questions than answering them. Those questions are some of the biggest and oldest ones we have, about holiness and justice and parenthood and life after death, but that doesn’t mean they have to be posed solemnly.
The difference between seriousness and solemnity is one of the trilogy’s main themes, especially when it comes to Coetzee’s understanding of Jesus. For while the scriptural Jesus is not a character in these books, they are profoundly about the meaning of his life and message. If the titles didn’t make that clear enough, Coetzee fills the novels with allusions to the Gospels—stories and phrases that would once have been familiar to most people in the Western world. The fact that most reviewers of these books have failed to understand or even notice them speaks volumes about the collapse of biblical literacy among the kinds of people who read literary fiction.
The first book in the trilogy begins with the arrival of a middle-aged man named Simon in a Spanish-speaking city called Novilla, where he has apparently been resettled as a refugee. In his care is a young boy named David, who Simon insists is not his son; they met on the ship heading to the unnamed new country, after David was separated from his parents and lost a note explaining his identity. Simon has taken it upon himself to reunite the boy with his mother, even though he doesn’t know her name or what she looks like.
As Simon and David navigate life in Novilla, Coetzee makes it increasingly clear that they are more than just immigrants. Rather, Novilla seems to be a home for the reincarnated souls of the newly dead, who arrive there stripped of their memories. “People here have washed themselves clean of old ties,” says the woman handling Simon’s case at the relocation center. The image evokes the Greek myth of Lethe, the river that separates the world from Hades, which erases the memories of the dead who cross it. But it also echoes the words of the prophet Ezekiel: “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean. ... A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you.”
In many ways, life in Novilla seems like life on earth: People have jobs and apartments, spend money and eat food. But Coetzee creates the uncanny sense that something integral to our world is missing from this one. Simon gets a job unloading grain sacks at the docks, where he notices that there is no sense of urgency about the work—no cranes to make things faster, no concern that rats end up eating much of the grain. Most meals consist of bread and water; when Simon is served spaghetti and tomato sauce, it is made without spices and has no flavor. Men have sexual needs and visit state-sponsored brothels to relieve them, but these are run like medical clinics, without eroticism or shame.
Is a society where everyone does what they should and gets what they need, but not an inch more, heaven or hell? Most of the people in Novilla seem quite happy there, not realizing that there can be anything more to life. Only Simon seems to be dissatisfied, but perhaps that’s because he’s selfish and immature, steeped in his bad old habits. He wants adventures and love affairs and progress, while everyone else is like a virtuous proletarian in a socialist-realist novel.
But as David experiences this new world, he too seems to rebel against it, not in a man’s way but in a child’s: He simply refuses to accept the way the world works. For instance, when a laborer at the docks insists on being paid as much the others even though he has done less work, Simon finds him contemptible, but David says the man is right. Simon points out that if everyone could take as much money as they wanted from the paymaster’s box, it would soon be empty, but David refuses to accept the conclusion: “There’s always money in the moneybox. That’s why it is called the moneybox,” he says.
To Simon, this is a child’s stubbornness and inexperience speaking. But it is also, Coetzee means us to recognize, a recasting of the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard from the Gospel of Matthew. In this story told by Jesus, workers who have been toiling all day complain that those who started in the evening receive the same wage. (This is the origin of the phrase “at the eleventh hour,” which is when the latecomers start working.) But the landowner rebukes them, saying that generosity is more important than fairness: “So the last shall be first and the first last.”
Coetzee’s use of the parable is meant to underscore that the Christian way of thinking is childlike, just as Jesus said it was: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The key question, which Coetzee develops in various ways throughout the trilogy, is whether being like a child means being unfair and unreasonable or radically innocent. If a child can’t demand the impossible, who will?
The opposition that Coetzee dramatizes here has been described in various ways by earlier Christian writers; in his poems, William Blake contrasted innocence and experience, the lamb and the tiger. But starting with the Apostle Paul, it has most fatefully been framed as the difference between Christianity and Judaism. After all, the law that Jesus wanted to abolish was Jewish law; the grown-up authority figures he resisted were Jewish priests and rabbis. Seen in these terms, Simon is clearly the Jewish figure in the novels, his plodding ethics destined to be superseded by David’s mysterious faith. That seems to be the meaning behind Simon’s name, which he shares with the righteous old Jew in the Gospels who sees the infant Jesus in the Temple and says: “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation.” (David’s name, meanwhile, alludes to Jesus’ descent from King David, which in the Gospels is confirmation that he is the messiah.)
By writing a parable instead of a historical novel, however, Coetzee gives himself the freedom to avoid this association of ideas. In the world of Novilla there is neither Judaism nor Christianity—indeed, it lacks history and religion altogether. As a result, the relationship between Simon and David doesn’t seem like a theological commentary about Jewish law versus Christian love. Rather, it is an archetypal struggle between reason and faith, and also between parent and child.
When Simon tries to teach David the ways of the world, he is impersonating a wise father, and so he sounds a bit foolish even to himself. David’s pronouncements, meanwhile—such as his flat denial that numbers can be added together—are much more foolish, yet he speaks with such authority that even Simon is impressed. In the third book, David runs away from home to live in an orphanage, where he gathers a group of friends who are more like disciples or apostles; his nonsense makes more sense to them than the good sense of adults.
This is one of many ways in which David’s life parallels that of Jesus, and part of the pleasure of the novels is recognizing these echoes. In the Gospels, Mary doesn’t become a mother in the normal way, but receives an announcement of Jesus’ conception from the angel Gabriel; in the novels, Simon glimpses a woman named Ines and intuits that she is meant to be David’s mother, handing the boy over to her to raise. When the city authorities want to send David to a boarding school for children with learning disabilities, Ines, Simon, and David flee Novilla by car, recapitulating the holy family’s flight into Egypt to avoid Herod’s massacre of the children of Bethlehem. The pattern continues until the end of the trilogy, when David dies at the age of 10 from a mysterious degenerative disease, a minor-key equivalent of Jesus’ early death on the cross.
The novels are haunted by the idea that David is literally the reincarnation of Jesus; perhaps it is his fate to challenge the world and suffer from it in life after life. But Coetzee also leaves open the possibility that David is simply a child, egoistic and willful like all children, though to an unusual degree. Many children who lose a pet react the way David does to the death of his favorite horse, El Rey, insisting that it’s not really dead and that he could bring it back to life. That is what Jesus did with Lazarus in the New Testament, but David doesn’t actually resurrect El Rey; perhaps he is simply expressing the universal human fantasy of being more powerful than death. Maybe, Coetzee suggests, that is why stories are written, including the stories in the New Testament—to prolong our childish sense of omnipotence.
Coetzee plays games of allusion with secular texts as well. The second novel introduces a character named Dmitri, who is lifted more or less directly from The Brothers Karamazov. Like his Dostoevskyan namesake, Coetzee’s Dmitri is a mercurial lout who is capable of both great charm and great depravity, and who ends up on trial for murder—in this case, the murder of David’s beautiful teacher Ana Magdalena. Simon loathes and fears Dmitri, but David is instinctively drawn to him, echoing Dostoevsky’s conviction that great sinners are actually closer to God than rational and respectable people. But if Coetzee took that idea from Dostoevsky, Dostoevsky took it from the New Testament; in another parable, Jesus says that “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”
By using Dostoevsky and other classics—including Plato, Cervantes, and Bach—to build his fable about Jesus, Coetzee seems to be paying tribute to a tradition of Christian art that may now be at an end. For many centuries, the New Testament provided the spiritual vocabulary of Western civilization, but the reception of Coetzee’s Jesus trilogy suggests that this can no longer be taken for granted. Ironically, Christianity now occupies a place in secular culture that has long been familiar to Judaism—it is esoteric, a body of knowledge shared by a dedicated few.
But Coetzee recognizes that this situation creates new opportunities for the Christian writer. In the 19th century, Kierkegaard lamented that Europeans had grown so used to Christianity that they no longer realized how scandalous and demanding it really was. He wanted them to read the Bible as if it were a contemporary document, not a venerable book that could be safely ignored.
In this sense, Coetzee’s trilogy is a Kierkegaardian experiment: By taking what he considers the core of Jesus’ message and recasting it in a new, unfamiliar form, the novelist can make its challenge plain. A novelist who dared to do the same thing with Judaism might give American Jewish literature a badly needed shake-up.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.