Fiction Friday | 'The Death of Jesus' by J.M. Coetzee

14 February 2020 - 11:00
'The Death of Jesus' brings Coetzee's incomparable trilogy to a close.
'The Death of Jesus' brings Coetzee's incomparable trilogy to a close.
Image: Supplied

In The Childhood of Jesus, Simón found a boy, David, and they began life in a new land, with a woman named Inés.

In The Schooldays of Jesus, the small family searched for a home in which David could thrive.

In The Death of Jesus, David, now a tall 10-year-old, is spotted by Julio Fabricante, the director of a local orphanage, playing football with his friends in the street. He shows unusual talent.

When David announces that he wants to go and live with Julio and the children in his care, Simón and Inés are stunned. David is leaving them, and they can only love him and bear witness.

With almost unbearable poignancy J.M. Coetzee explores the meaning of a world empty of memory, but brimming with questions.

CHAPTER 1

It is a crisp autumn afternoon.

On the grassy expanse behind the apartment block he stands watching a game of football. Usually he is the sole spectator of these games played between children from the block. But today two strangers have stopped to watch too: a man in a dark suit with, by his side, a girl in school uniform.

The ball loops out to the left wing, where David is playing.

Trapping the ball, David easily outsprints the defender who comes out to engage him and lofts the ball into the centre. It escapes everyone, escapes the goalkeeper, crosses the goal line.

In these weekday games there are no proper teams. The boys divide up as they see fit, drop in, drop out. Sometimes there are thirty on the field, sometimes only half a dozen. When David first joined in, three years ago, he was the youngest and smallest. Now he is among the bigger boys, but nimble despite his height, quick on his feet, a deceptive runner.

There is a lull in the game. The two strangers approach; the dog slumbering at his feet rouses himself and raises his head.

‘Good day,’ says the man. ‘What teams are these?’

‘It is just a pick-up game between children from the neighbourhood.’

‘They are not bad,’ says the stranger. ‘Are you a parent?’

Is he a parent? Is it worth trying to explain what exactly he is? ‘That is my son over there,’ he says. ‘David. The tall boy with the dark hair.’

The stranger inspects David, the tall boy with the dark hair, who is strolling about abstractedly, not paying much attention to the game.

‘Have they thought of organizing themselves into a team?’ says the stranger. ‘Let me introduce myself. My name is Julio Fabricante. This is Maria Prudencia. We are from Las Manos. Do you know Las Manos? No? It is the orphanage on the far side of the river.’

‘Simón,’ says he, Simón. He shakes hands with Julio Fabricante from the orphanage, gives Maria Prudencia a nod. Maria is, he would guess, fourteen years old, solidly built, with heavy eyebrows and a well-developed bust.

‘I ask because we would be happy to host them. We have a proper field with proper markings and proper goalposts.’

‘I think they are content just kicking a ball around.’

‘You do not improve without competition,’ says Julio.

‘Agreed. On the other hand, forming a team would mean selecting eleven and excluding the rest, which would contradict the ethos they have built up. That is how I see it. But maybe I am wrong. Maybe they would indeed like to compete and improve. Ask them.’

David has the ball at his feet. He feints left and goes right, making the move so fluidly that the defender is stranded. He passes the ball to a teammate and watches as the teammate lobs it tamely into the goalkeeper’s arms.

‘He is very good, your son,’ says Julio. ‘A natural.’

‘He has an advantage over his friends. He takes dancing lessons, so he has good balance. If the other boys took dancing lessons they would be just as good.’

‘You hear that, Maria?’ says Julio. ‘Maybe you should follow David’s lead and take dancing lessons.’

Maria stares fixedly ahead.

‘Maria Prudencia plays football,’ says Julio. ‘She is one of the stalwarts of our team.’

The sun is going down. Soon the boy who owns the ball will reclaim it (‘I’ve got to go’) and the players will drift off home.

‘I know you are not their coach,’ says Julio. ‘I can also see you are not in favour of organized sport. Nevertheless, for the boys’ sake, give it some thought. Here is my card. They might enjoy it, playing as a team against another team. Very good to meet you.’

Dr Julio Fabricante, Educador, says the card. Orfanato de Las Manos, Estrella 4.

‘Come, Bolívar,’ he says. ‘Time to go home.’

The dog heaves himself to his feet, letting loose a malodorous fart.

Over supper David asks: ‘Who was the man you were talking to?’

‘His name is Dr Julio Fabricante. Here is his card. He is from an orphanage. He proposes that you boys choose a team to play against a team from the orphanage.’

Inés examines the card. ‘Educador,’ she says. ‘What is that?’

‘It is a fancy word for teacher.’

When he arrives at the grassy field the following afternoon, Dr Fabricante is already there, addressing the boys clustered around him. ‘You can also choose a name for your team,’ he is saying.

‘And you can choose the colour of your team shirts.’

‘Los Gatos,’ says one boy.

‘Las Panteras,’ says another.

Las Panteras finds favour among the boys, who seem excited by Dr Julio’s proposal.

‘We at the orphanage call ourselves Los Halcones, after the hawk, the bird with the keenest sight of all.’

David speaks: ‘Why don’t you call yourselves Los Huérfanos?’

There is an awkward silence.

‘Because, young man,’ says Dr Fabricante, ‘we do not seek any favours. We do not ask to be allowed to win just because of who we are.’

‘Are you an orphan?’ asks David.

‘No, I do not happen to be an orphan myself, but I am in charge of the orphanage and live there. I have great respect and love for orphans, of whom there are many more in the world than you may think.’

The boys fall silent. He, Simón, keeps his silence too.

‘I am an orphan,’ says David. ‘Can I play for your team?’

The boys titter. They are used to David’s provocations.

‘Stop it, David!’ hisses one of them.

It is time for him to intervene.

‘I am not sure, David, that you appreciate what it is to be an orphan, a real orphan. An orphan has no family, no home. That is where Dr Julio comes in. He offers orphans a home. You already have a home.’

He turns to Dr Julio.

‘I apologize for involving you in a family dispute.’

‘No need to apologize. The question young David raises is an important one. What does it mean to be an orphan? Does it simply mean that you are without visible parents? No. To be an orphan, at the deepest level, is to be alone in the world. So in a sense we are all orphans, for we are all, at the deepest level, alone in the world. As I say to the young people in my charge, there is nothing to be ashamed of in living in an orphanage, for an orphanage is a microcosm of society.’

‘You didn’t answer me,’ says David. ‘Can I play for your team?’

‘It would be better if you played for your own team,’ says Dr Fabricante. ‘If everyone played for Los Halcones there would be no one for us to play against. There would be no competition.’

‘I am not asking for everyone. I am just asking for me.’

Dr Fabricante turns to him, Simón. ‘What do you think, señor? Do you approve of Las Panteras as a name for your football team?’

‘I have no opinion,’ he replies. ‘I would not wish to impose my tastes on these young folk.’

He stops there. He would like to add: These young folk who were happy playing football in their own way until you arrived on the scene.