The Schooldays Of Jesus- J M Coetzee (2016) – A Man Booker Longlist Review

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J M Coetzee, on paper, must be a strong favourite to take the 2016 Man Booker prize.  This South African writer, now an Australian citizen, became, in 1999, the first author to win the award twice with “Disgrace” (16 years after “The Life And Times Of Michael K”).  He has made the shortlist once since then and this is his third appearance on the longlist.  If successful, he would be the first author to win three times.  A Nobel Prize winner,  he is one of the most celebrated writers of our era and, confession time, I hadn’t read any of his work before.

This, his 13th full-length novel follows on from 2013’s “The Childhood Of Jesus.”  I agonised whether to read this first but decided as the prize is for a stand-alone novel then this is how this should be judged.  I did spend a couple of minutes scanning Amazon to discover it features the same three central characters and that (surprise surprise) reviewers were not always full of praise.   I wasn’t sure what to expect with this- some kind of allegory or fable?  I must admit I didn’t feel particularly inspired by the title but Coetzee’s skill is that the reader can read in as much or as little as they want and still manage to get much from the work.

In a Spanish-speaking country in some kind of alternate reality which possesses both a timelessness and modernity, a boy, David, (not his real name) arrives with a woman who may or may not be his mother, Ines, and Simon,  a guardian.  The three are on the run from authorities and instantly the inferences behind the title suggest themselves.  They spend the summer fruit-picking and befriend the owners who agree to contribute to David’s education.  He is an extremely inquisitive boy and is enrolled at an Academy Of Dance which follows some obscure philosophy regarding numbers.  David, at 6 years old, tries the patience of those around him apart from his Dance teacher whose words he adheres to over and above his family.  His veneration of the Dance is shattered when things take a macabre turn at the Academy.

Characterisation is strong.  David is as self-centred as any 6 year old has a right to be and the relationship with Simon, the stepfather who is determined to do right by him, is one of the strengths of the novel.  The concept of education as a  moving away from the family unit is effectively conveyed as Ines and Simon begin to feel pushed out of David’s life.  How can we be sure  that we are doing the right thing by our children and when is it necessary to intervene?  Coetzee is an intellectual writer, undeniably smarter than much of his readership.  If we don’t understand all the levels of meaning and where all this is going is it to the detriment of the book?  Generally speaking, I would say yes but I thoroughly enjoyed this and that may be the reason this author gets selected for awards.  The combination of readability and intellectualism is bound to make us feel good about ourselves as readers.  This should certainly make the shortlist.

fourstars

The Schooldays of Jesus is published by Harvill Secker in August 2016.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance copy.

Wolf Wolf – Eben Venter (2015)

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This is the third novel to be translated into English from its original Afrikaans written by South African born but Australian resident Eben Venter.  The translation is by Michael Heyns.  It was first published in his homeland in the two languages, was shortlisted for the 2014 Sunday Times Fiction Award and took the prize for best novel in Afrikaans at the Kyk-NET Rapport Awards.  It was first published by Scribe books in hardback in 2015.  The book is adorned with recommendations from amongst others South African Nobel-Prize Winner J M Coetzee, UK based American author and University Professor of Creative Writing Patrick Flannery and extraordinary writer, director and gay historian Neil Bartlett- all of whom are enough recommendation to drive me to this work.

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Eben Venter and friend

Central to the novel is the character Mattheus who has come back to South Africa from abroad to look after his terminally ill father.  With his senses closing down the father comes to increasingly rely on the care of his son.  Their relationship has always been strained.  This is a man with whom Mattheus has always been in conflict.  The father is a successful business man with strong religious beliefs, the son is unsettled and gay and together in a large house a kind of peace needs to be established.  This is a subtle, yet powerful tale of relationships and masculinity, of obsession and thwarted dreams.  Mattheus wants to make something of himself before his father dies (with help from his father’s chequebook) and work out some common ground with his partner, where both internet pornography and Facebook is affecting their ability to communicate with one another.  How men communicate (or not) is a strong theme throughout the novel.  There were times when I was reminded of Patrick Gale but the South African setting gives it a very different, unique dimension.

The novel is imbued with the heat of the region and a vivid sensory richness which that heat brings about.  There is also tension as fears for personal safety are never too far from the characters’ minds.  Also used effectively is dialect, which has a formality about it and a structure which can subtly add to the distance between the characters.   Mattheus is not especially likeable and there is no doubt that both he and his boyfriend Jack struggle to cope with the responsibilities of adulthood.  To convey this Venter uses the symbol of  a wolf mask, as suggested in the title which throughout the novel is used both to cover up and to intimidate.  I found this a book which simmered throughout with depths that reading groups might love to analyse.  This was for me a rich, thoughtful novel and I am keen to read Venter’s two much earlier works available in English – “My Beautiful Death” (2006) and “Trencherman” (2008).

Wolf Wolf was published in hardback in the UK by Scribe Books.  There is also an E-Book available, including a Kindle edition from Amazon.

fourstars

An edited version of this review has appeared in New Books issue 85 and on the Nudge Books website.