J. M. Coetzee’s “Bread and Beans” Writing

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“It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone.” But supplement that doughy diet with a little bit of unsalted bean paste, and you have all of the nutrients necessary to live a healthy, hard-working life. At least, that is, according to Nobel Laureate and two-time Booker prize winner J. M. Coetzee in his 2013 novel The Childhood of Jesus, and its sequel The Schooldays of Jesus.

These books (which have nothing to do with Jesus in any literal sense) are set in a strange, unnamed country, to which travelers immigrate in order to start a new life. Upon arrival, they are “washed clean” of their memories and issued new names. The country is a kind of socialist ‘utopia’ (with much emphasis on the inverted commas there) in which honest, hard work and moderation are extolled as principal virtues. Hence the abundance of bread (“the staff of life”) and beans.

I am fixated by this detail of the bread and beans because it strikes me that Coetzee’s prose might itself be described as “bread and beans” writing: short, declarative sentences, with a fairly simple vocabulary. William Faulkner’s famous criticism of Ernest Hemingway—“He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary”—could just as easily apply to Coetzee. However, we should remember that Hemingway responded to this jibe with perhaps the greatest literary comeback of all-time: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”

Indeed, Coetzee’s prose may be devoid of Faulknerian flourishes, but somehow his “bread and beans” writing seems to me more appetizing than that of just about any novelist working today, even though it often leaves a knot of hunger in the stomach. His simple sentences do express the “big emotions” Hemingway refers to, as well as, more importantly, big ideas. But he always stops short of providing us with definitive answers. Instead, Coetzee forces more questions on us, leaving us nourished, but aware of some new deprivation.

The Childhood of Jesus follows a man and boy, Simón and Davíd, who arrive in the unnamed country to start a new life. We learn that they met during the voyage when Davíd lost his parents, and Simón makes it his goal to reunite the boy with his mother, assuming a kind of surrogate father role himself. Eventually they find a woman, Inés, who agrees to care for Davíd, although, since everyone arrives in the new country “washed clean” of their past memories, it is impossible to know if she is the boy’s true mother.

This is just one of the many questions that the first book leaves unanswered, and a frustrated reader hoping for clarity in The Schooldays of Jesus is likely to be disappointed. In fact, this sequel raises even more questions, introducing a narrative inconsistency in the very first sentence: Childhood ends with the trio fleeing to the city of Estrellita, while Schooldays opens with them arriving in Estrella. Coetzee is too intelligent a storyteller for this to be an editorial mishap. One could argue that this discrepancy is a nod towards Coetzee’s use of the Gospels as a kind of ur-text, complete with contradictions between volumes.

The reasons for such discrepancies remain mysterious, and any attempt to reach an answer raises more questions, all of which lead nowhere. Whether one finds this frustrating or enlightening is fittingly a question of faith: it is necessary to believe that there is some secret authoritative meaning beneath it all in order to enjoy the search. One does not need to be a disciple of Coetzee’s to make sense of these books, but a willingness to trust in his authorial power is a requirement for extracting their sustenance. Without it, that most blasphemous p-word (ends with “retentious”) will wend its serpentine way into your mind and all hope will be lost.

The notion of faith on the reader’s part complements Coetzee’s theme in Schooldays, which seems to present a kind of Gospel of the secular. The novel itself is short on plot, revolving around young Davíd’s enrollment in the Estrella Academy of Dance, where a bizarre philosophy of numerology and astrology is espoused. The students are taught to dance with “body and soul together” in harmony “with the great underlying movement of the universe.” Simón dismisses this as “a load of mystical rubbish”. But, this pseudo-scientific philosophy has a kernel of truth at its centre, illuminating the religious aspects of secular life. The laws of mathematics and physics, for instance, are invisible, abstract concepts that govern our behavior, and in which we must have faith. These unseen and unknowable qualities of the universe seem to be the elements of faith on which Coetzee’s novel hangs, and (without spoiling anything) the ending is suggestive of an embrace of spiritual thinking devoid of religion.

The ending of Schooldays, much like that of its predecessor, feels abrupt, and leaves the reader uncertain as to whether this is truly the end, or part of a longer series. Coetzee’s enigma extends far beyond the page (he no longer gives interviews, and in his occasional public appearances he will read from his novels, but never comment on them) and for this reason no accurate speculation can really be made as to whether we will see another sequel. When Childhood appeared in 2013 there was no indication that it was to be the first in a series, and the first widespread news of the existence of Schooldays came just a month before its UK publication, when it was announced as a longlisted title for the Man Booker Prize. Coetzee evidently works in mysterious ways, and this makes it difficult to pass judgement on what may still be considered a work in progress.

If there is to be a continuation, it is likely to be at least three years away, which may give readers enough time to figure out their own personal notion of what is going on in the first two books. It may be that the novels work as a vision of the afterlife, or an allegorical representation of the ‘missing years’ of Jesus, or a fable on immigration and assimilation, or even a mysterious kind of parody: one character’s observation that mankind should be searching “not for the true answer but for the true question” sounds like something straight out of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Indeed, almost any kind of explanation holds validity, as these texts act like a Zen kōan extended far beyond its typical length, offering a limitless scope for interpretation, with the meditative act of coming to a personal understanding holding just as much value and truth as the catalytic text itself.

As for “the true question” of whether you, dear reader, will discover anything holy in the messianically initialled John Coetzee’s latest, consider this: When you find yourself in the bistro of the literary greats, do you always order the most extravagant dish on the menu, or do you sometimes hunger for the humble nourishment of the complementary bread basket with, perhaps, a small side order of bean paste? Unsalted, you say? Then verily you speak the truth: come into the light.

Christian Kriticos is a freelance writer and heritage fundraiser, with degrees in English from Durham University (UK) and Northwestern University. He has lived in Saudi Arabia, Scotland, the United States, and England, where he currently works at Bull House, the historic home of Thomas Paine. More from this author →