J.M. Coetzee’s ‘The Death of Jesus’Uses Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’ as Subtext

Whereas J.M. Coetzee's writing regularly utilizes parables, The Death of Jesus purposely destabilizes. It dazzles in its ability to present profound questions while challenging the reader to remain critical and question the meaning derived from any and all parables.

The Death of Jesus
J.M. Coetzee
May 2020

The Death of Jesus marks the final installment of the trilogy written by Nobel Prize-winning author J.M. Coetzee. Much as The Childhood of Jesus (2013) and The Schooldays of Jesus (2017) were defined by cerebral philosophical inquiry, the finalé is built on a similar quest for knowledge. The Death of Jesus dazzles in its ability to present profound questions while challenging the reader to remain critical and question the meaning derived from any and all parables.

The trilogy is expressed in the third person narrative of Simón, who finds himself in the dreamy quasi-socialist village of Novilla. He is told his memories are washed clean and this life is the opportunity to start anew. Indeed, he can’t remember his history, not even his former name. He is only able to recall the boat that conveyed him across to the sea to his new destination. While on that voyage, he meets then five-year-old Davíd and agrees to serve as his guardian until the boy’s mother is identified. Through happenstance or destiny, an intentional ambiguity constructed by the author, the pair meet Inés, who commits to acting as the child’s mother.

Davíd is described as exceptional; his obstinance and penchant for philosophical inquiry prevents him from acclimating to a traditional public school. Davíd eventually finds solace at a school for dance imparted on a pedagogy intertwining physical movement with cosmic numerology. The school is shaken by the rape and murder of the headmistress, Ana Magelena, by the beloved groundkeeper, Dimitri. There is a definite connection between the three novels, but it is possible to read The Death of Jesus as a standalone text. Coetzee interweaves backstory, enough to provide new readers with context but without alienating his devoted readership.

The Death of Jesus resituates the characters four years later. Davíd, now ten years old, decides to abandon his overindulging guardians to find sanctuary in the local orphanage. In theory, they are not his biological parents and the orphanage accepts Davíd without question.

Throughout the trilogy, and revisited by the orphanage’s blind admission of Davíd, Coetzee pens a criticism of how state-sanctioned violence goes unmarked when delivered by benevolent language. Regardless of whether the institution is medical, educational, or social, Coetzee often portrays state-programs as perpetuating systematic oppression. For example, the orphanage aptly called Los Manos, or the Hands, assumes the children’s only positive contribution to society is as gardeners, plumbers, and pastry chefs. Rather than develop their abilities, the orphanage rejects academics and tracks the children for limited vocational training.

The compassion contriving social services is also beholden to Coetzee’s fire. Using Dimitri’s lawlessness, Coetzee questions the progressive trend to humanize criminals and offer restoration instead of punishment. After his conviction, Dimitri is sentenced to a hospital to rehabilitate his mental health. The rules are lax, he often walks out the door unabated. By the third book, he is supposedly completely rehabilitated despite renouncing the psychologists and their practices.

Furthermore, when Davíd is hospitalized after experiencing vertigo, inflamed joints, and seizures, it becomes apparent the doctors was indulging in research — the theory– while forgoing healing – the praxis. In The Death of Jesus, and as evident throughout the trilogy, Coetzee is astutely skeptical of the promises uttered by state-agencies and remains vigilant to the proceeding harm.

Whereas Coetzee’s writing regularly utilizes parables, The Death of Jesus purposely destabilizes. Consider the religiosity evoked by the trilogy’s titles despite there being no character serving as a representation of Jesus. Coetzee further misleads by seemingly naming secondary characters after biblical figures. Ana Magelena shares more characteristics with J.S. Bach’s wife than with any divinity. After Davíd’s death, mourners fight to lay claim to his life because they warped the boy’s ethos to match their personal ideologies. Here, Coetzee plays with the trust his readership offers him as an author thereby avowing the novel’s purpose.

The Death of Jesus uses Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote as the primary subtext. Much as Cervantes relied on a metafictional framework to remind of a story’s constructedness, Coetzee establishes a similar aim. The Death of Jesus concludes by stating fiction, textbooks, or writing of any kind, communicates fictive messages and does not provide truths. Moreover, an author’s authenticity is nullified by the variance offered by interpretation. The novel’s admonition of fictive compositions is so overt, it becomes clear the author is mocking the tendency to overanalyze his work. Much as Davíd’s devotees await the final message but are denied due to his death, Coetzee also eschews his readers. By highlighting fiction’s artificiality, Coetzee eradicates the novel’s signification.

In Don Quixote, the character Samson believes storytellers are untrustworthy. Coetzee similarly situates his characters as unreliable narrators. The minuscule narrative inconsistencies and the character’s affinity to blur reflection showcases the tension between fiction and reality. In doing so, Coetzee smashes the proverbial mirror of interpretation but in a way that is haughty rather than subversive. Coetzee’s point is acceptable when aligned with postmodernism but it is also unsatisfactory and renders the ultimate question: was this the author’s intent from the beginning? Unlikely.

As a standalone work, the less involved narrative galvanizes a metafictional reading. But when considered among the trilogy, The Death of Jesus is Coetzee’s weakest effort. He misses opportunities to revisit important philosophical questions such as the deconstruction of passion or ethical responsibility. Davíds death hurriedly concludes the narrative without establishing closure. Inasmuch as The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus were driven by deep philosophical questions and drawn with striking allegory, the final novel is comparatively flippant and dismissive.

Over the course of his oeuvre, Coetzee’s writing has adroitly communicated his intellect. Yet The Death of Jesus is only a glimpse into the breadth of his ideas and the third installment is an anti-climatic conclusion to an otherwise captivating trilogy.

RATING 6 / 10