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Thursday 8 May 2014

Review: J.M.Coetzee, the Life of Jesus

“Something’s Missing”

“This sentence, which is in Mahagonny, is one of the most profound sentences that Brecht ever wrote and it is in two words” (Ernst Bloch)

To feel that something’s missing is to feel that some other world – some new world – is possible, some world which is not this wearying reality of ours. It is the feeling which inspires both religion and utopian politics.

Coetzee’s Simón makes use of this expression. He finds and rescues the lost child David, takes him to a new world where he identifies by pure intuition a seemingly unlikely woman, Inès, as the child’s mother. Together but not together, the two of them struggle to bring up David  - a wilful child just made for psychological labelling and intervention. Eventually, they flee seeking a second new life.

Coetzee sets his novel in a Spanish-speaking geography which might be Argentina (“Punta Arenas” for example). But the social world he describes has something wrong with it – it seems to be straightforward but becomes opaque. It is not a real social world, though its inhabitants seem contented enough and are untroubled with any thoughts that something might be missing. But Simón thinks otherwise. Something is missing.

At first, I thought it would be necessary to decode the story – to nail it down onto the firmer foundation of Joseph, Jesus and Mary. So when, for example, we are told that Simón and David make their way to their new world through a resettlement camp, Belstar – well, I just thought “Bethlehem Star”.

But then I decided that this was a stupid way to read this book and, after that, it got better. And it’s very good not least because you are constantly presented with situations in which you have sympathies pulling you both ways. It is as if the book is made up of vividly presented dilemmas – practical, moral, personal … - which have the common quality of having no obvious right answer.

It’s all very unsettling if you want a straightforward story – but then of course, just to add to your dilemmas, you do also get a straightforward story which holds your attention. You want to know what in the end will become of Simón and David and Inès and some of the other characters in the cast.

And as if things are not complicated enough,, and in case you are still thinking that the book must have a Key, then you have to cope with the fact that David learns to read from just one book and only reads that book and that it is referred to throughout. Don Quixote.

A fascinating book.

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