The Death of Jesus by J. M. Coetzee

South African born writer, John Maxwell Coetzee, relocated to Adelaide, South Australia in 2002 and became an Australian citizen in 2006. He won the Booker Prize twice: for Life & Times of Michael K in 1983, and for Disgrace in 1999. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.

The story is simple. The language is simple but with purple patches – “silvery spheres too many to count rotating about each other with an unearthly hum, in neverending space”: simple words describing a cosmic image. This and oft used Spanish words and names together with the present tense and an absence of contractions gives the narrative a strange tone, a mysterious placement. This is heightened by a curious grammatical pairing of pronoun with proper noun: ” …says he, Simón” (but only for this character, no other) hinting at a possible translated text from an old time. Halfway through the book you will discover that although this book you are reading is in English, the story is in Spanish. Only the 10 year-old boy has an English name: David, an orphan, who plays football well because he also dances. He is a strong willed and serious boy.

Unlike most novels there is a lack of detail. Clothes, the weather, the place, and surroundings are minimally described, if at all. This has a further curious effect of making the work sound like a fable.

He is in the care of Simón, also a dancer, and Inès; they try to behave like real parents. David becomes enamored of Dr Julio Fabricante, the proprietor of a local orphanage and football team, who has a liberal free-thinking but anti-book learning attitude to raising children. David is attracted to the idea of orphan-dom and decides to live at the orphanage. Simón can’t stop him and Inès is angry at him for not trying harder. Their relationship, tenuous but stable but only because of the boy, is further strained.

When David’s legs mysteriously stop working the orphanage gives him back to the couple. David is broken. In hospital his condition is mysterious but he gathers attention from other patients, visitors, and staff, including a reformed murderer of David’s early acquaintance working as a janitor. He tells them stories from his head about Don Quixote, the only book he has ever read and it remains the only book he reads. They all gather around his bed listening to him. He is called ‘Young Master’ and he has an old dog who, along with the reformed murderer, are the only ones who understand him.


What does it all mean? There are parallels with the life of Jesus: a boy whose parents are not his parents, a boy of a weak body but a strong mind, a boy who garners followers, a boy who befriends sinners, alianates authorities, and has a life infused by an old text.

Some writers, John Boyne, the writer of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006), in particular, have been heavily criticised and even beleaguered and verbally abused for not, according to his abusers, getting his facts straight. His detractors obviously expect a novel to be ‘in’ the same universe as they are. This is an unnecessary assumption. Made-up stories about witches and elves, vampires and blood-drinking, walking talking trees and ents are obviously NOT in the universe of the reader. Why then assume that other made-up stories must be? Just because the world of a novel ‘looks like’ the world of the reader, readers should not assume that it is.

Every made-up story exists in its own unique universe. It is an example of speculative fiction.

Coetzee’s The Death of Jesus (2019) is a made-up story. It’s universe is similar but not the same as ours. Strange things happen and strange ideas are championed for reasons that go to the heart of the work. Readers need to find their own unique meaning of what they read. This is part of the joy of reading fiction. This understanding, which few people understand, is the sole responsibility of the reader. It has nothing to do with the writer. When you read it and discover your own meaning it will be very different to mine. I’m sure.

Its futile wondering what Coetzee meant – it’s very likely, Coetzee being a novelist (a conduit of literary creativity), that he doesn’t know what he meant.

Although the title may give away how the story unfolds, it is not as one would expect. In fact the ‘end’ of the story loses narrative tension, but still the expectation of what you don’t expect serves the same purpose.

Whatever it is, it’s a bloody entertaining and intriguing read.

Recently established at the University of Adelaide is the J M Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice where its namesake is the Patron. It is a research centre devoted to understanding creativity and a cultural hub where leading literary, musical and multimedia scholars and artists can learn from one another and collaborate.

You can hear the man himself pronounce his name here. (John Cortzee – jon kert SEE)

You can buy the book in various formats here.

Here you can watch a short reading by J.M. Coetzee at the University of Adelaide’s Traverses conference in 2014.

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