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book review

Puzzling parable of two adults and a boy who go to a new town in a tale that doesn’t go anywhere

J.M. Coetzee’s new novel “The Schooldays of Jesus” begins with an epigraph from “Don Quixote” that translates as “some people say second parts (are) never very good.” “The Schooldays of Jesus” is a sequel to “The Childhood of Jesus” (2013), and Coetzee is having a bit of fun at his own expense while letting his readers know he’s not as austere as everyone thinks.

But the joke’s on us. These are strange little books, pallid, head-scratching parables from a writer whose interest in fiction seems to have waned since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.

“The Childhood of Jesus” follows three travelers through unnamed Spanish-speaking country. Simón, a middle-aged laborer, and, Davíd, the world’s most precocious 5-year-old, are refugees on a boat that docks in the city of Novilla. Davíd is looking for his mother, and Simón agrees to help find her. They run into a woman called Inés playing tennis, and Simón, absent any evidence, decides she must be Davíd’s mother. She agrees to take the child, and the odds that the three will become a little family rise.

But they don’t live happily ever after. In Coetzee’s barren land of allegory, “memories are washed away.” We discover Simón, Davíd, and Inés aren’t their real names and that they fail to gel: Simón is restless and prone to philosophical discussions with fellow stevedores. Inés doesn’t have much of a maternal instinct. Davíd is a little pill who thinks he’s smarter than his teachers. At novel’s end they flee census takers for a new city, Estrella, and a new school for Davíd.

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“Schooldays” picks up where “Childhood” left off. Novilla may have been a bland metropolis whose citizens ate tasteless food and weren’t much interested in sex, but it’s a paradise compared to Estrella, a town that exiles its criminals to salt mines. Davíd enrolls in a dance school and bonds with the haughty headmistress and the custodian who worships her. Two characters, Dmitri and Aloysha, have names straight from Dostoyevsky, and there’s crime but no punishment.

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There is a lot of high-minded gasbagging about numerology and the stars and passion and innocence. Coetzee uses a flat, affectless style with few modifiers and treats plot and character development as nuisances to be brushed aside. Davíd is an exceptional child — everybody says so — but his most exceptional trait is questioning everything the endlessly patient Simón tells him and bossing his peers around. If he is a representation of Christ, he hasn’t read the Ten Commandments.

Coetzee’s fiction has always been a thorny arroyo, bristling with serious ideas expounded by serious characters who don’t necessarily resemble real people. It’s brilliant but bone dry, Nabokov without the puns and playfulness. In the years since he published his masterpiece, “Disgrace” (1999), Coetzee’s taken a sharp turn toward meta with an autobiographical trilogy about a character named John Coetzee, not the author despite striking resemblances (big brain, vegetarian, tightly wound). There have been some essays and criticism, an exchange of letters with writer Paul Auster that does nothing to dispel the image of Coetzee as humor challenged, a libretto for his novel “Slow Man,” and now two books with Jesus in the title but nowhere in the tale.

Coetzee is 77 and has been a restless experimentalist throughout his career, never afraid to try a fresh approach while remaining grounded in philosophy and a classic literature. Two allusions in “Schooldays” are typical of his approach — they’re intelligent but incidental to the narrative. They don’t build meaning or add character; they’re just there.

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In the first, a “distinguished philosopher” is about to give a lecture called “Man the Measure of All Things.” It turns out that one of the audience members believes the title is “Man the Measurer of All Things” and looks forward to a lecture on land surveying. No further explanation is given, but “Man the measure of all things” is a quote from the Greek philosopher Protagoras, who believed there is no absolute truth except what is determined by man.

The second circles back to Cervantes. Davíd taught himself to read with a children’s edition of “Don Quixote” and in the earlier novel got angry when Simón told him he couldn’t make up his own story. This time Simón tells the boy that “all any of us can do is make up stories.” “The Schooldays of Jesus” is an argument in search of a story, a sequel that isn’t very good from an author who knows better.

THE SCHOOLDAYS OF JESUS

By J.M. Coetzee

Viking, 260 pp., $27


Jeff Baker is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. His reviews have been published in the Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, and Seattle Times.