“The Death of Jesus” marks the final instalment 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 (2020) 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. Coetzee is a writer who goes again and again to the pre-texts of his European culture and derives his impetus to write. He exemplifies the post-Enlightenment “public transformation of Christianity from a religion of doctrinal orthodoxy to a religion of ethics.” The absence of religious language from Western liberal democratic discussion is worrying. The novel might well be best understood as a work of the post-secular imagination insofar as it “neither proselytizes secularism nor sentimentalizes religion.” Coetzee is projecting “a middle-class version of the world.” But the realist novel was also an outgrowth of the era’s dominant philosophy: Enlightenment reason – the same body of “knowledge” that had justified imperialism.
David, the main character, embodies the other side of Coetzee: the anti-rationalist desperate to prove that logic is man-made and reason an enclosed self-justifying system, the primitivist who espoused a philosophy, of music and dance. Why is he going to Jesus again and again? Is he a Christian? The answer is: “As for grace, no regrettably no: I am not yet.” He explains “I would not be who I am without… that aberrant Jewish prophet Jesus of Nazareth.”
The Death of Jesus uses Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote as the primary pre-text. Much as Cervantes relied on a meta-fictional framework to remind of a story’s constructedness, Coetzee establishes a similar aim. Kafka’s saying “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us” is literally true here. It is a novel which as in Plato takes “care of the soul.” In the novel there is none with Jesus name, but David is the obvious analogue. He is an orphan looking for a refuge which he does not get. “David cannot or will not do sums. More worryingly, he will not read. That is to say, having taught himself to read out of Don Quixote, he shows no interest in reading any other book. He knows Don Quixote by heart, in an abbreviated version for children; he treats it not as a made-up story, but as a veritable history.”
Dr Julio says his orphanage is an island of refuge. Anyone who is a victim can come there and he will protect him. “Who has been doing bad things to you?” demands Inés, his foster mother. “Things don’t have to be true to be true. All you ever say is: Is it true? Is it true? That is why you don’t like Don Quixote.” He tells his own quixotic stories. Some comes to buy the horse of Don Quixote. “A horse that counts may be rare,” said the man, “but it cannot surely be priceless. There is nothing in the world that does not have a price.” Then Don Quixote said, “O man, you see not the world itself, but only the measures in which the world is veiled. Woe unto you, blind one.”
There was brought before Don Quixote a virgin who had a baby which was fatherless. Then Don Quixote said to the virgin, “Who is the father of this baby?” The virgin replied, “I cannot say who the father is, because I did sexual intercourse with Ramón and I did sexual intercourse with Remi.” Then Don Quixote had them bring Ramón and Remi before him. “Which of you is father of this baby?” he demanded. Ramón and Remi gave no reply, but held their silence. Then Don Quixote said, “Let a bath be brought full of water, and they brought a bath full of water.” Then Don Quixote unwrapped the baby from its swaddling clothes and laid it in the water. “Let the father of the baby stand forth,” he said. But neither Ramón nor Remi stood forth. Then the baby sank under the water and turned blue and died. Then Don Quixote said to Ramón and Remi, Woe unto you both; and to the virgin he said, Woe unto you too.
David was hospitalised for joints pain and swelling, the doctor was treating him or experimenting with him is unclear. He dies of pain? He was possessed by Quixote of Cervantes. But who was Quixote? Sancho Panza, who read stories of knight errands and was possessed by. Contemporary world lives by the comment by Miguel de Unamuno the Quixote is “Spanish Christ.”
The truth is, young David was nobody’s son. What does it mean to be an orphan? To be an orphan, at the deepest level, is to be alone in the world. So in a sense we are all orphans. The messenger was the message. He passed by like a comet.