You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Unsuitable Passions of J.M. Coetzee

The Jesus trilogy is an ambitious, unearthly reckoning with desire and disaster.

Edwina Pickles/Fairfax Media/Getty

Men and their desires. Do we really need more on the subject? It is ground that has been plowed so often, by Roth, Updike, and others who came of age during the sexual revolution and its aftermath. These writers practically exhausted the English language exploring every aspect of their desire: David Foster Wallace, back in 1997, famously described Updike as “a penis with a thesaurus.” Yet our understanding of male desire has changed since the heyday of the Great Male Narcissists, as Wallace called them. It is something more malevolent than we once thought and hence more mysterious, too—lying at the root of Harvey Weinstein’s crimes, to name a specific example, and of “toxic masculinity” more broadly. The pernicious influence of desire is now understood to be so widespread that Wallace himself has entered the pantheon of Great Male Narcissists.

Viking, 208 pp., $27.00

Since the publication in 1999 of his novel Disgrace, desire has been an abiding preoccupation of the South African Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee. Disgrace combines Coetzee’s earlier focus on apartheid, often filtered through the lens of dystopian allegory, with the story of a middle-aged professor in Cape Town who is shunned for preying on one of his students. The novels that followed increasingly revolved around a recurring figure: a reserved, pedantic man who is also full of hidden passion; a philosopher enslaved by his emotions. Sometimes the figure is purely fictional: The main character in Slow Man (2006) is an amputee who develops an “unsuitable passion” for his physical therapist, a married mother of three. Other times the figure is based on Coetzee himself: Youth (2002), the second in Coetzee’s trilogy of autobiographical novels, features a young Coetzee in search of the muse who will unleash the torrent of feelings dammed up within him; Summertime (2009), the third in the trilogy, is partly told from the fictionalized perspectives of the former objects of Coetzee’s desire, who return his affections by describing him as a “cold fish,” a “eunuch,” a “célibataire.

Now in his late career, the 80-year-old Coetzee has completed another trilogy: The Childhood of Jesus (2013), The Schooldays of Jesus (2016), and the newly released The Death of Jesus. These elliptical, ruminative novels follow the adventures, such as they are, of a boy named David and his middle-aged caretaker, Simón, “a placid man, placid to a fault,” whose soul nevertheless secretly “aches with longing for it knows not what.” Over the course of three books, Simón mulls the great existential questions—about life and death, truth and fiction, right and wrong—but it is desire that is his intellectual lodestone, the riddle that might explain his restlessness, his unhappiness, his condition.

It might also offer him redemption. As the titles of these books suggest, Coetzee is working within a more spiritual dimension, concerned less with temporal matters than the judgment we might levy on our lives. In Coetzee’s moral matrix, desire is of a piece with our fallen nature, equal parts good and evil. It is the source from which so many of our instincts spring: to have and to hold; to love and to cherish; to wound, to dominate, to destroy.

The world in which the Jesus trilogy is set is a hazy, dreamlike version of our own. Its inhabitants arrive there by boat, across a sea that washes the past clean. The borders of this foreign country are unclear, its landscape arid. There are cities, but they feel etiolated, empty. There is a language (Spanish), but no overarching culture. There is a bureaucracy, too—fresh off the boat, David and Simón register with a relocation center in the city of Novilla—but where its authority comes from is a mystery. David and Simón have no memories of life before the crossing. The boy, who is only five, has lost his mother, about whom he recalls nothing. Simón has agreed to help him find her.

Is this the afterlife? A parallel universe? The future? The precise nature of this world is ambiguous, as is the identity of the two main characters. They are refugees of a kind, having left behind, as all emigrants do, the people they were in the old country. They also resemble survivors of some obliterating trauma, among the chosen few who have made the arduous journey to the promised land. Or they might be reincarnated souls, nagged by the feeling, as tantalizing as a phantom itch, that they were someone else in a previous life.

Though Novilla is a bleak and barren place, it is not inhospitable to these new arrivals. They find lodging in an apartment complex called the Blocks. Simón quickly finds work as a stevedore, hauling sacks of grain. The food is cheap and plentiful, even if it is bland, monotonous, mostly bread. The people are helpful and kind, even if they are a bit dull, a bit bloodless. No one goes hungry, no one lacks for shelter, no refugee is ever rejected, but something is missing, a certain spark. Is this a utopia or a dystopia? Coetzee appears to be suggesting that there is a fine line between the two.

The principal difference between this new world and the old, Simón learns, is that the people in Novilla have lost their interest in sex. “I don’t like it,” one woman tells Simón. “I don’t have an appetite for it.” Simón, who still carries the ways of the old world with him, is baffled. He still feels himself to be a man, with a man’s desires. “What are our appetites for if not to tell us what we need?” he asks. “If we had no appetites, no desires, how would we live?”

The thematic premise of the Jesus trilogy is actually outlined in a previous Coetzee book. Paul Rayment, the character in Slow Man who has lost a leg, has a reverie while lamenting the diminishment of his manhood: “A phrase from catechism class a half-century ago floats into his mind: There shall be no more man and woman, but … But what—what shall we be when we are beyond man and woman?” In the Christian afterlife, Rayment remembers, love will be pure, unblemished by sin. Is this a love we would recognize? Is this a love we would admire, a love that is shorn of earthly desire, that finds its expression in the beatific smile of the blessed?

Something like love plays a decisive role in Simón’s quest to find David’s mother. Like the other episodes in The Childhood of Jesus, the discovery of the mother happens suddenly and improbably; the narrative, like a bad dream, is composed of a string of non sequiturs. They see her on a tennis court, all dressed in white. Simón feels that she is dimly familiar, that he has met her before. She is Inés, a “thirty-year-old virgin.” Simón tells Inés that she is David’s mother. Though mother and child do not recognize each other, she agrees to take care of him. One of Simón’s neighbors in the Blocks is appalled that he would entrust David to a stranger’s care. “The moment I saw Inés, I knew,” Simón says, defending himself. “If we don’t trust the voice that speaks inside us, saying, This is the one! then there is nothing left to trust.”

This is the type of delusional thinking, his neighbor retorts, that results in “calamitous love affairs.… She is just a random woman on whom you have projected some private obsession of yours.” Whether our feelings are delusions or the sacred location where truth resides is a question that runs throughout these novels. David’s favorite book is a children’s version of Don Quixote, featuring the knight of the doleful countenance fighting the windmills he believes are giants. As Simón explains to David, Don Quixote “presents the world to us through two pairs of eyes”: the addled perspective of the knight and the sober perspective of his sidekick, Sancho Panza. Through this juxtaposition, we know that the old knight is crazy. Yet is Don Quixote any less noble, any less courageous, any less a knight, for being a fool? Love is like that: a hallucination that is overwhelmingly real.

Whatever feelings Simón might have for Inés, they are not reciprocated. (“What is the one theme that keeps recurring from book to book?” asks one of the women in Summertime. “It is that the woman doesn’t fall in love with the man.”) She is regally aloof, quick to irritation, and jealous of her son’s affections.

But the three of them end up becoming a family of sorts. There are heavy-handed hints that David is different from the other children, that he is special. He makes cryptic statements—“Yo soy la verdad, I am the truth”—that suggest he is indeed a Jesus-like figure, perhaps even the reincarnation of the savior himself. He is also, at times, utterly ordinary: a willful, dictatorial brat. The hope that one’s child is destined for greatness, the regular reminders that he is a child like any other—this dynamic is the alpha and omega of parenting. In David’s case, his willfulness gets him in trouble at school, and the authorities insist that he be transferred to an institution for wayward children. To rescue David from this awful fate, Inés and Simón abscond with the boy to another city, Estrella, the setting for the second book, The Schooldays of Jesus.

It is here that we witness the dark side of desire. David is enrolled in a school headed by a husband-and-wife team who teach their students the “dance of the universe,” a kind of numerological philosophy. The wife, Ana Magdalena, is beautiful, so beautiful that she inspires worship, as if she were a goddess. Simón admits that “he could spend hours gazing at her, rapt in admiration at the perfection she represents of a certain kind of creaturely form.” Yet it is not Simón’s role to play the lovesick suitor; that falls to Dmitri, a poor, disheveled man who hangs around the school. When the perfect body of Ana Magdalena is found strangled to death, it turns out that Dmitri was the killer—and also that he had been Ana Magdalena’s secret lover.

Unlike the other people in this universe, Dmitri and Ana Magdalena had a passion for each other. The murder is a crime of passion, a malignant outgrowth of Dmitri’s desire. “It came from his heart, where it had been lurking for a long time, waiting to strike like a snake,” Simón tells David. For his part, Dmitri says he was motivated by an impulse to “Show her who is master. Show her what love is really like.” He is contrite about the crime he has committed, but he is also unyielding in his belief in the truth of his emotions: “When it comes to life’s greatest choices, I follow my heart,” he says. “Why? Because the heart is always right and the head is always wrong.”

Simón is presented as Dmitri’s foil: cool to the point of coldness; rational to the point of sterility. He shares an affinity with Bolívar, the family’s aging dog: “Certainly he is in the latter phase of his life, the phase of decline. He has begun to put on weight; though he is an intact male, he seems to have lost interest in bitches.” Simón is horrified by Dmitri’s behavior but is also in awe of the depth of his feeling; in awe, too, of his openness to love and its life-upending torments. Dmitri says, “There is no escaping it, is there, Simón? No escaping the thunderbolt.” Simón doesn’t know how to respond: “When was he last hit by a thunderbolt? Not in this life.”

Dmitri returns to torture Simón further in The Death of Jesus, in which David, now 10 years old, comes down with a mysterious illness that confines him to a hospital bed. Dmitri says he is a reformed man, a Paul-like figure who has had his own road-to-Damascus conversion. He now claims to be David’s disciple, the leader of a group of acolytes who develop a cult around David and spread rumors of the supposed miracles he has performed. But Dmitri still preaches the gospel of passion, which Simón imagines going something like this: “Blessed be the passionate, for the record of their crimes shall be wiped clean.

Lest we forget the nature of those crimes, there is one disturbing incident involving Bolívar that reveals the grisly consequences of a life ruled solely by animal desire. David insists that his parents bring him a pet lamb from the school to keep him company in the hospital. Bolívar wants to eat it, but David’s will prevails and the lamb is allowed to stay in a cage. While watching David, Inés falls asleep, and that’s when Bolívar strikes: “When she awakes at first light the cage is lying on its side and nothing is left of the lamb save its head and a bloody tangle of hide and limbs on the once clean floor.” (The idea that Simón and Bolívar are connected is strengthened by the fact that their names, put together, invoke the Simón Bolívar who liberated much of Latin America from the Spanish empire. Compared to their namesake, Coetzee’s Simón and Bolívar are rather apathetic, the point perhaps being that history in this nonhistorical world repeats itself as farce.)

Yet the passionless life, though safer, offers only a different, slower kind of death. As David deteriorates, Simón and Inés grow closer, but they remain fundamentally estranged:

There are no easy words for what their relation has been: certainly not man and wife, nor brother and sister. Compañeros may come closest: as if, from their common purpose and common labour, there had grown up between the two of them a bond not of love but of duty and habit.

Simón, who has been careful not to let the flames of passion leap too high, ends the book alone: no child, no partner, not even the dog.

Where Coetzee comes down on the divide between passion and reason is difficult to say. He is both a roiling cauldron of emotion and the analytical, unblinking eye trained upon it. One senses a deep shame on his part, almost a revulsion at the way desire betrays what is exalted within us. In his conception, desire entails men behaving disgracefully, sometimes monstrously. And even when its effect is more benign, it involves a humiliating loss of autonomy. As one of the women in Summertime says, “Well, that is what you risk when you fall in love. You risk losing your dignity.”

But desire has a dignity of its own. It is our natural response to beauty, a beauty that is often invisible to the outside world. Who other people choose to love often surprises us: What does she see in him? we ask. Desire is not just a vehicle for lust but for tenderness, gratitude, and admiration. Simón is not in search of anything so crass as a liaison but a vessel “to pour whatever it is that pours out of me, sometimes as mere talk, sometimes as tears, sometimes in the form that I persist in calling loving care.” It is a moving thought, that we might have such a lot of care to give.

Perhaps, Coetzee suggests, desire is really the expression of some original lack, a bedrock dissatisfaction with the world. “Something is missing,” Simón says. “I know it should not be so, but it is. The life I have is not enough for me.” It is no coincidence that Simón and David are migrants, condemned to wander the earth forever as foreigners. What is missing from their lives, as well as from our own, was lost at some point in the passage to the present moment. “This place wrenches my heart,” says the Coetzee of Summertime, looking out as the sun sets over the karoo, an arid, desertlike region in South Africa. “It wrenched my heart when I was a child, and I have never been right since.”

Can another person fill the hole in our lives? In the books of J.M. Coetzee, as in the real world, desire usually leads to complications, disasters. There are few happy endings and a lot of pain, loneliness, frustration. If there is solace to be had, it lies in higher pursuits—in writing, for example, in the sublimating act that lifts even the lowest desires into the rarefied echelon of art. But what would we have to write about were it not for feelings like desire? Coetzee’s early work was so immersed in the political, but in the dusk of his career he has reoriented himself toward a more elemental subject: the longing for happiness, for wholeness, for life itself. Desire is the proof that we are alive; that we are, in both the best and worst senses of the word, human.