The Schooldays of Jesus

Probably not what you're thinking: a fable about a boy who dances the numbers down from the sky
Book Info
The Schooldays of Jesus
J.M Coetzee
Text Publishing

This is a simple tale in which the very simplicity is beguiling and bewitching. A sequel to The Childhood of Jesus, published in 2013, The Schooldays of Jesus is Coetzee’s thirteenth novel. Coetzee, South African by birth, now resident in Adelaide, the first author to twice win the Man Booker Prize, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.  This work was longlisted for the 2016 Booker.

Like the Christmas stories that even non-Christian’s will recall about the birth of Jesus, this tale is bare and straightforward, told in plain, unembellished language. The mastery of allegory and fable is evident. Six year old David has arrived in a new country by boat.  He is in the care of Ines who claims to be his mother but demonstrates few motherly tendencies, and Simon, his adoptive father who is not the lover, but the protector of both Ines and David. After a period picking grapes and then olives on an estate in the country, Ines and Simon are concerned that David, a hyper-sensitive and intelligent child, needs to be enrolled into a school.  Yet they are also concerned that his presence not be disclosed in the forthcoming census. 

Eventually David is enrolled in a specialist Academy of Dance where he learns from the beautiful Ana Magdalena how to dance to call down the numbers from the stars. David’s prickly intelligence and abrupt childish questions provide Coetzee’s vehicle for provoking and engaging the reader with the big existential queries about life, love, justice and the reckoning of death.

The story is placeless and timeless (it feels to me life a dusty village in southern Argentina or Chile in the 1980s) yet is strongly anchored in the physicality and phenomenological elements of its environment. For me the last third of the novel veers toward magic realism which is not my favourite genre, but I loved his allegorical presentation of our obsession with measurement.

I was a little disappointed in the thinness of Coetzee’s females in this work: they felt brittle in comparison with the vital males. I did not warm to the child, David, whose aloof arrogance is powerfully alive in the dialogue. But for me the characters of Simon, Dimitri and Senor Arroyo, the master of the Academy, representing the three key forces at play in this fable, are vivid and engaging.

The Schooldays of Jesus is an effortless and enriching read, in which Coetzee’s storytelling skills and his preoccupation with big questions come together in a smooth and densely illuminated tale. Pretty spellbinding.


Reviewer: Pamela Greet