The South According to Coetzee

Readers waiting expectantly for the third novel in J. M. Coetzee’s late trilogy, following The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus, were in for a ...

Readers waiting expectantly for the third novel in J. M. Coetzee’s late trilogy, following The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus, were in for a surprise: the book was published in May 2019, but not in English. It appeared in a Spanish translation; not The Death of Jesus but La muerte de Jesús. Readers anxious to get their hands on the English original found themselves obliged to wait for the Australian publication, in October 2019, or even longer for the US and UK publication, slated for January 2020. What lies behind this privileging of Spanish? How does it relate to the fact that the language of the imagined territory in which the events of the novels are played out is Spanish? And why three books with “Jesus” in the title?

To understand this curious situation, it’s necessary to trace some interesting developments in the Nobel laureate’s career in recent years. Since 2015, Coetzee has visited the National University of San Martín, in Greater Buenos Aires, twice a year to direct a seminar series on “Literatures of the South.”1 For each seminar, Coetzee invites writers from Australia, where he lives, and Southern Africa, where he still has close connections, to join him in a program of readings and discussions. The aim is to establish networks of writers, critics, editors, teachers, and graduate students across the three regions to foster literary translation and publishing, and thus to avoid having to encounter what Coetzee calls “the cultural gatekeepers of the metropoles of the North,” “who decide which stories by the South about itself will be accepted into the repertoire of world literature and which will not.”2

Coetzee has explained that this campaign arises from his growing disenchantment with the global hegemony of American and British culture. He has lost interest, he says, in the way his books are received and read in the English-speaking world (it’s clear that he means the USA and UK in particular) and has become more interested in the way they are received elsewhere. He works closely with translators and has begun to think of himself as a writer who is not located in any particular language or country. Hence the prior publication of the Spanish version of The Death of Jesus—by an Argentinian translator and (partially) under an Argentinian imprint.3 Hence, also, the absence of any specific geographical location in these three novels, not even an amalgam of identifiable locations as was the case with Waiting for the Barbarians.

Coetzee’s vision of a culture of the South embraces Latin America (several of whose countries he has visited), Southern Africa, and Australia—and, one must assume, New Zealand, though, somewhat surprisingly, it goes unmentioned in his arguments. He resists the term “global South” as “a concept merely, an abstraction invented by social scientists” that is “the negative other of the North, the site of absences.” The strongest influence on his thinking is the work of the Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell, whose book Southern Theory argued for the importance of social theories originating outside the European and North American zone.4 For Coetzee, there is a “mythic South” produced by the writers and thinkers of the North, and a “real South,” a South of shared physical experiences and long, complex histories of colonization, where “the winds blow in a certain way and the leaves fall in a certain way and the sun beats down in a certain way that is instantly recognisable from one part of the South to another.”5

The Death of Jesus is not the first work of Coetzee’s to appear initially in a Spanish translation. Siete cuentos morales (Seven Moral Tales) appeared in 2018 from the same publishers and from the hand of the same translator. Despite frequent references to the forthcoming English text in the press and from Coetzee’s own lips, and the copyright page’s naming of Moral Tales as the original of which this is a translation, Coetzee apparently has no plans to publish an English equivalent—this, at least, is what he assured me in early 2019. Although most of the stories in this collection have appeared in scattered English publications—five of them involve Coetzee’s favorite character Elizabeth Costello—readers in the anglophone world are being deprived of the opportunity to see them as a group. Themes familiar from Coetzee’s earlier novels run through the collection, in particular the relations between animals and humans and the trials of aging. Australian readers also have the privilege of owning a handsome small volume called Three Stories, another collection of Coetzee’s scattered short works that is not available in the North.

Many of Coetzee’s earlier novels have also appeared in translation before the publication of the original, but in these cases the language was Dutch. As a gesture of support for the small Dutch publisher Uitgeverij Cossee and its enterprising founder, Eva Cossée, a close friend of Coetzee’s, the Dutch reading public has been encouraged to purchase the Dutch version before being tempted by the English, which would in most cases not pose problems for readers in the Netherlands. In what appears to be a compromise between competing claims, the Dutch translation of The Death of Jesus is due to appear in November 2019, ahead of the USA and UK, but after Australia.

For Coetzee, there is a “mythic South” produced by the writers and thinkers of the North, and a “real South,” a South of shared physical experiences and long, complex histories of colonization.

Part of Coetzee’s decision to allow The Death of Jesus to appear first in a Spanish version, he says, is that in these novels “people arrive in the next life and find that the language spoken in the next life is not English, but Spanish.” (Given Coetzee’s reluctance to offer interpretations of his own fiction, we should take the assertion that the novels deal with “the next life” with a pinch of salt.) This fact gives the Spanish versions of the novels a curious flavor: in reading La muerte de Jesús I was continuously aware that I was reading a translation from English, even to the extent that the many conversations felt like translations into Spanish of an English representing Spanish. Perhaps if my Spanish were better and I were not constantly having to make my own translation into English, this version might have felt like a Spanish original—in which case, the English original would feel like a translation. This is probably the effect Coetzee would want.

In The Childhood of Jesus, the question of language is highlighted. The characters, newly arrived in the city of Novilla after a sea crossing during which they have shed their earlier identities and had their memories erased, have been obliged to learn Spanish in a transit camp as the only language of their new environment. We learn on the first page that Simón, whose perspective governs all three novels, has found the new language “hard to master”; but David, the young boy Simón has adopted on the crossing, appears to have no difficulty in picking it up. Also important in the novel is Don Quixote, a children’s version of which is the means by which the boy learns to read, and it continues to influence his view of the world. If we were wondering whether the novel is set in Spain, our doubts end when Simón explains to David that “La Mancha is in Spain, where the Spanish language originally came from.”

The new novel, like The Schooldays of Jesus, takes place in the city of Estrella, to which Simón, David, Inés (his adoptive mother), and Bolívar the dog have escaped from Novilla’s oppressive authorities. That everyone has to speak Spanish is not an explicit issue in this novel, but the question of language comes up during a moving conversation between Simón and David. The boy, who is suffering from a mysterious illness, asks Simón what it is to die. Simón’s answer is a comforting description of the transition to a new life across an ocean, accompanied by a forgetting of the past—not unlike the transition all this country’s inhabitants have experienced on their way there. (This is only one of the features of the trilogy that render dubious the simple explanation that the characters have entered the “next life.” Are we to imagine a series of “next lives”?) David then asks whether he will see Don Quixote in the new life. Simón reassures him that the knight (who is not a comic and self-deluded figure for David) will personally order the uniformed men at the entrance to let him pass. David has a doubt: “¿Tendré que hablar otro idioma?” “No”, answers Simón, “Don Quijote habla español y tú también hablarás español.”6 Which is reasonable enough, though in the original version of the novel they will all be speaking another language.

Are the “Jesus” novels peculiarly Southern? Spanish is no more and no less a marker of Southernness than English, and the locale remains unspecific: the winds do not blow, the leaves do not fall, the sun does not beat down in ways that are identifiably Southern. The centrality of Cervantes’s novel suggests peninsular Spanish culture rather than Latin America. Many of Coetzee’s earlier novels are set in South Africa or Australia, and matters of great pertinence to the colonial history of those countries feature importantly, but the South has no particular claim on the issues thrown up by the narrative and dialogues of the “Jesus” novels.

In giving these novels their startling titles, Coetzee invites readers to find in the text some relevance to Christianity and an equivalence between David and Christ. (The commonness of the name “Jesús” in Spanish cultures renders the titles a little less surprising there than in the English-speaking world, of course; but since we meet no character with this name, the need for some ingenuity in interpretation remains.) Some commentators on the first book of the trilogy have suggested that it may be read as a speculative account of the missing years of the child Jesus, drawing on the Apocryphal “infancy gospels”;7 this third book suggests that what Coetzee is especially interested in, however, is the way a religion like Christianity takes root.

When David’s death is reported, the novel has 60 pages still to go, and in some ways this section is the most remarkable: elaborate performances are staged in David’s memory, with competing groups of mourners; disputes arise about the fate of his corpse; there is much talk of the “message” he was carrying, though no one can say what it was; and devoted disciples (including the reformed murderer Dmitri whom we met in the pages of the second book) are already spreading the word of the boy’s otherworldly origins and destination. If the book’s title suggests the Crucifixion to its readers, this isn’t wrong, not because David’s death is modeled on Jesus’s any more than his life is, but because the early departure of a very special individual can feed the widely felt hunger for a savior. It’s a hunger experienced all too strongly today, in the North as well as the South.


This article was updated on October 14, 2019.


This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley. icon

  1. The government of Mauricio Macri has now put a stop to this arrangement, and its future remains uncertain.
  2. In Conversation: J. M. Coetzee with Soledad Costantini,” May 29, 2018, Azkuna Zentroa, Bilbao. I continue to draw on this interview in what follows.
  3. The copyright page lists the publisher as El Hilo de Ariadna in Buenos Aires along with Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial in Buenos Aires and Barcelona, and the title page bears the author’s name and that of the translator, Elena Marengo. Ironically, because of pressures from the metropolitan publisher involved, the Spanish into which the novel is translated is not idiomatically Argentinian; the gatekeepers in Madrid retain their power.
  4. Raewyn Connell, Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science (Polity, 2007).
  5. Quoted in James Halford, “Reading Three Great Southern Lands: From the Outback to the Pampa and the Karoo,” The Conversation, July 11, 2016.
  6. “Will I have to speak another language?” “No, Don Quixote speaks Spanish and you will speak Spanish.”
  7. See the excellent essays by Robert Pippin and Jean-Michel Rabaté in J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus: The Ethics of Ideas and Things, edited by Jennifer Rutherford and Anthony Uhlmann (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017).
Featured image: Southern Migration (2019). Photograph by Richard Lee / Unsplash