In Estrella, David has grown to be a tall ten-year-old who is a natural at soccer, and loves kicking a ball around with his friends. His father Simón and Bolívar the dog usually watch while his mother Inés now works in a fashion boutique. David still asks many questions, challenging his parents, and any authority figure in his life. In dancing class at the Academy of Music he dances as he chooses. He refuses to do sums and will not read any books except Don Quixote.
One day Julio Fabricante, the director of a nearby orphanage, invites David and his friends to form a proper soccer team. David decides he will leave Simón and Inés to live with Julio, but before long he succumbs to a mysterious illness. In The Death of Jesus, J. M. Coetzee continues to explore the meaning of a world empty of memory but brimming with questions.
About the Author
Date of Birth:February 9, 1940
Place of Birth:Cape Town, South Africa
Education:B.A., University of Cape Town, 1960; M.A., 1963; Ph.D. in Literature, University of Texas, Austin, 1969
Read an Excerpt
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 left stranded. He passes the ball to a teammate and watches as the teammate lobs the ball 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 Julio. ‘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 Julio 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.
This is the fourth year of their residence in the apartment block. Though Inés’s apartment on the second floor is large enough for all three of them, he has by mutual agreement taken an apartment of his own on the ground floor, smaller and more simply furnished. He has been able to afford it ever since his earnings were augmented with a disability grant for a back injury that has never properly healed, an injury dating back to his time as a stevedore in Novilla.
He has an income of his own and an apartment of his own but he has no social circle, not because he is an unsociable being or because Estrella is an unfriendly town but because he resolved long ago to devote himself without reserve to the boy’s upbringing. As for Inés, she spends her days and sometimes her evenings too attending to the fashion boutique she half-owns. Her friends are drawn from Modas Modernas and the wider world of fashion. He is deliberately incurious about these friendships. Whether among her friends she has lovers he does not know and does not care to know, so long as she remains a good mother.
Under their wing David has flourished. He is strong and healthy. Years ago, when they were living in Novilla, they had a battle with the public school system. David’s teachers found him obstinado, intractable. Since then they have kept him out of the public schools.
He, Simón, is confident that a child with such clear inborn intelligence can do without formal schooling. He is an exceptional child, he tells Inés – who can predict in what direction his gifts will lie? Inés, in her more generous moments, is prepared to agree.
At the Academy of Music in Estrella David attends classes in singing and dancing. The singing classes are supervised by the director of the Academy, Juan Sebastián Arroyo. When it comes to dancing, there is no one at the Academy who has anything to teach him. On the days when he makes an appearance in class, he dances as he chooses; the rest of the students follow or, if they cannot follow, watch.
He, Simón, is a dancer too, though a late convert and without any gifts. He does his dancing in private, in the evenings, alone. After donning his pyjamas, he switches on the gramophone at a subdued level and dances for himself, with his eyes shut, long enough for his mind to go blank. Then he switches off the music and goes to bed and sleeps the sleep of the just.
The music is, most evenings, a suite of dances for flute and violin composed by Arroyo to mark the death of his second wife, Ana Magdalena. The dances have no title; the record, pressed in the back room of a shop in the city, has no label. The music itself is slow and stately and sad.
David does not deign to attend normal classes, and in particular to do arithmetical exercises like a normal ten-year-old, because of a prejudice against arithmetic encouraged in him by the deceased señora Arroyo, who impressed it on students who passed through her hands that integral numbers are divinities, heavenly entities who existed before the physical world came into being and will continue to exist after the world has come to an end, and therefore deserve reverence. To mix the numbers one with another (adición, sustracción), or chop them into pieces (fracciones), or apply them to measuring quantities of bricks or flour (la medida), constitutes an affront to their divinity.
For his tenth birthday he and Inés gave David a watch, which David refuses to wear because (he says) it fixes the numbers in a circular order. Nine o’clock may be before ten o’clock, he says, but nine is neither before nor after ten.
To señora Arroyo’s devotion to the numbers, given form in the dances she taught her students, David has added an idiosyncratic twist of his own: identification of particular numbers with particular stars in the sky.
He, Simón, does not understand the philosophy of number (which he privately considers to be not a philosophy but a cult) proselytized at the Academy: openly by the late señora, more discreetly by the widower Arroyo and his musician friends. He does not understand it but he tolerates it, not only out of consideration for David but also because, when he is in the right mood, during his solitary dancing of an evening, there sometimes comes to him a vision, momentary, transient, of what señora Arroyo used to speak of: silvery spheres too many to count rotating about each other with an unearthly hum, in unending space.
He dances, he has visions, yet he does not think of himself as a convert to the cult of number. For his visions he has a reasoned explanation, one that satisfies him most of the time: the lulling rhythm of the dance, the hypnotic chant of the flute, induce a state of trance in which fragments are sucked up from the bed of memory and whirled before the inner eye.
David cannot or will not do sums. More worryingly, he will not read. That is to say, having taught himself to read out of Don Quixote, he shows no interest in reading any other book. He knows Don Quixote by heart, in an abbreviated version for children; he treats it not as a made-up story but as a veritable history. Somewhere in the world, or if not in this world then in the next one, Don Quixote is abroad, mounted on his steed Rocinante, with Sancho trotting by his side on an ass.
They have had arguments about Don Quixote, he and the boy. If you would only open yourself to other books, he says, you will find that the world has a multitude of heroes besides the Don, and heroines too, conjured out of nothing by the fertile minds of authors. Indeed, being a gifted child, you could make up heroes of your own and send them out into the world to have adventures.
David barely listens to him. ‘I don’t want to read other books,’ he says dismissively. ‘I can already read.’
‘You have a false understanding of what it means to read. Reading is not just turning printed signs into sounds. Reading is something deeper. True reading means hearing what the book has to say and pondering it – perhaps even having a conversation in your mind with the author. It means learning about the world – the world as it really is, not as you wish it to be.’
‘Why?’ says David.
‘Why? Because you are young and ignorant. You will rid yourself of your ignorance only by opening yourself to the world. And the best way of opening yourself to the world is to read what other people have to say, people less ignorant than you.’
‘I know about the world.’
‘No you do not. You know nothing whatsoever of the world outside your own limited field of experience. Dancing and kicking a football are fine activities in themselves but they do not teach you about the world.’
‘I read Don Quixote.’
‘Don Quixote, I repeat, is not the world. Far from it. Don Quixote is a made-up story of a deluded old man. It is an amusing book, it sucks you into its fantasy, but fantasy is not real. Indeed, the message of the book is precisely to warn readers like yourself against being sucked into an unreal world, a world of fantasy, as Don Quixote is sucked. Do you not recall how the book ends, with Don Quixote coming to his senses and telling his niece to burn his books so that no one in future will be tempted to follow his crazy path?’
‘But she doesn’t burn his books.’
‘She does! It may not say so in the book, but she does! She is only too thankful to get rid of them.’
‘But she doesn’t burn Don Quixote.’
‘She can’t burn Don Quixote because she is inside Don Quixote. You can’t burn a book if you are inside it, if you are a character in it.’
‘You can. But she doesn’t. Because if she did I would not have Don Quixote. It would be burnt up.’
He comes away from these disputations with the boy baffled yet obscurely proud: baffled because he cannot overcome a ten-year-old in an argument; proud because the ten-year-old can so deftly tie him in knots.