Here I need to declare an interest, or to be more precise, a lack of interest. The final volume from the Man Booker Longlist is The Schooldays of Jesus by JM Coetzee. I don’t like his writing. You may imagine I have given it my best shot, after all he has won the Man Booker Prize twice already. Do I care? No, I greet this news with dismay, and will howl if he wins again this time. That said, I am committed to posting about the longlist so here goes:
First off, this is the second book in a series and if you have not read the first I think you would be completely baffled and at a loss. I hadn’t, so I have been obliged to catch up with volume one called The Childhood of Jesus.
This is described by one critic [Sunday Telegraph] as “a moving story of lost childhood.” With all due respect, I disagree. The briefest synopsis will show that it is not the childhood that is lost but the identity, upon which topic there hang a number of philosophical ideas and statements that are explored and thread the narrative.
A middle-aged man, Simón, and a young boy aged somewhere between four and six arrive in a strange land after a long ocean voyage. Somewhere on the boat, David has lost a letter that explains who he is, he is separated from his mother and his father seems not to have been there at all. Simón takes him under his care and resolves to help him find his mother.
On arrival in this place, the newcomers are all given new names, and in some mystical way the voyage across the ocean has washed away previous memory – hence Simón and David are not their ‘real’ names. Which in the second book, the one that actually is on the longlist, entails another protracted philosophical debate – what is the meaning of the phrase “Who am I?”
Simón and David find accommodation, not without difficulty, in a unit – having apparently come from a camp of sorts called Belstar. They are required to speak Spanish.
Simón finds a job as a stevedore and fulfils, in his spare time, the quest for the mother. The filing system in the allocation office will not help them, as they are all living under new names; and as they have forgotten their past, it will be impossible to trace the mother except by looking.
Some months pass and one day, they meet Inés. By intuition it seems that this is the woman he seeks. After some reluctance, Inés agrees to take the boy (though clearly she is not, and never could be, the child’s flesh and blood).
So between them, and the dog Bolivar, they nurture and raise the child.
David is by turns preternaturally intelligent, and utterly, exasperatingly silly. They try all sorts of remedies, and Simón tries to teach him to read using a child’s version of Don Quixote. David likes the stories but shows a great reluctance to learn his letters or his numbers. He wishes to know how to read by magic.
Once established in a school, things go from bad to worse. He is disruptive, and disinclined to learn (ADHD?). But when summoned to the school, Simón and Inés do their best to explain his odd behaviour. After seeing a child psychiatrist, David is still obliquely challenging and difficult, so there is a suggestion, even an obligation to act upon it, that he should be sent to board at a special school.
In despair they take him home, whereupon he demonstrates that he can both read and write.
I am not going to say any more about this book, if it appeals to you, go read it yourself. But if you intend to read the one that is on the Man Booker Longlist, I suppose I have given you just enough information (though not of the details) to get you started.
On the run from the authorities, because David has run away from the special school, Simón and Inés drive north to a new town. Here, since it is summer, they work in an orchard farm, first picking grapes and then harvesting olives while David plays around with the other children of the pickers.
The farm is owned by three sisters. At the end of the season, it is time to move on but the sisters have taken an interest in the precocious David. So they agree to pay for him to go to an Academy of Dance in another town.
I am slightly at a loss for words here. I am going to quote some of the epithets that have been printed on the back cover about the first volume:
Richly enigmatic [Guardian]; mesmeric cunning…limpid, gnomic and surprising [Independent]; powerful and poetic [Financial Times]; haunting [Daily Express].
Am I missing something here? I can see aspects of all these adjectives in parts of this book, but equally some of it is simply silly and one principal theme is melodramatic, all of it wound about with known philosophical maxims.
If these books are about anything at all (and forget about Jesus, so far this child’s life bears no relationship at all to JC, except that the adults do not understand him) they are about identity, memory and how we fit into ourselves and into each other; the nature of nurture and what exactly constitutes parenting. Simón never claims to be more than David’s guardian (uncle, godfather) but the relationship with Inés is more complex.
David alternates between accepting and denying these relationships, and forming intense relationships of his own, which sometimes fail and cause great mutual harm. He is wilful, bossy and at times very unpleasant, judgemental (doesn’t come close) in a childish and unconsidered way; then suddenly gnomic, mystical and rather exceptional.
Simón is a very interesting character, Inés more difficult – but not enough for me to engage. If you try to see this through the prism of the expanding refugee crisis, then some of it begins to make a sort of sense, but that breaks down almost immediately.
There must be further volumes to come – will I read them? Doubtful. As to the opinions of the critics – I suspect that there is a mild case of emperor’s clothes going in here – see for yourself.