There must be some secret connection between the end of the pandemic and the return of fiction to our lives. At least in New York, the authorities lifted this week all the restrictions sustained for more than a year in public places, gyms, restaurants, schools and theaters, putting an end also to a less explicit but equally persistent prohibition in habits, such as that of opening a novel and immersing yourself in the story of characters and situations that have nothing to do with everyday realities.
How to explain this coincidence where the first victim of the plague is fiction? The dangers of contagion, the physical pain, the disease that closes cities and houses, also have the power to isolate the individual existence to privilege the care of oneself: the passage of time disappears, life becomes a sameness of continuous repetitions of minimal acts aimed at preserving what already exists or one already has, and the world of others is reduced to the statistics of fatalities, the infected, the number of available beds, vaccination doses implemented according to demographic magnitudes. A world of figures replaces then the plurality of the world that vanishes behind the common denominator of the pandemic represented on the screens of teleworking and virtual meetings.
Fiction is an effort to make visible the inapprehensibility of reality, its multiple layers and secrets, the difficulty of its meaning and the impossibility of understanding and dominating it once and for all.
Under these conditions the pact of fiction does not survive, or does so at a very low intensity. On bread and water, I would say, because that pact, that suspension of disbelief between the reader and the novel where we attest to the story we are being told, requires at least an attentive abandonment of ourselves, but abandonment nonetheless. The same does not happen with history books, philosophical abstractions, confessional genres, science popularization books and their pretended mastery of the truth: all of them arrive as guests of honor at the time of the pandemic because they do not demand from the reader any imaginative effort. There converge the hard data of the battles of history, the matrix concept of philosophy, the diary of life recognizable in the sentimentality associated with the genre, science with its precise data and quantifiable experiments. On the contrary, fiction is an effort to make visible the inapprehensibility of reality, its multiple layers and secrets, the difficulty of its meaning and the impossibility of understanding and mastering it once and for all. Fiction escapes from the cage of concept, from the mooring of historical data, from the confessional tear, and even from the obligatory massiveness of cinema or the exclusivity of painting and the visual arts.
“Promise me you won’t try to understand me,” David tells Simón in a key passage of The Death of Jesus, the novel that closes J.M. Coetzee’s trilogy that began with The Childhood of Jesus, in 2012, followed by The Schooldays of Jesus, in 2016, and brilliantly concluded with the last installment, in 2020, published exactly one year ago and in the midst of the worst moment of the global pandemic. It is unthinkable that Coetzee prefigured the plague as he was finishing the writing of the book, but the truth is that The Death of Jesus slips without premeditation the resistance of fiction to let itself be overcome by the misfortune of a particular moment. In it, a ten-year-old boy who has been renamed David lives in the Latin American town of Estrella with his adoptive parents, Simón and Inés, who become a couple with the sole purpose of protecting David and giving him some education. The town of Estrella is a desolate mixture of Rulfo’s Comala and the dock of Zama, where the waiting world passes like a bleeding twilight with no memory of the days gone by, forgotten after a catastrophe that goes unnamed throughout the trilogy. It is the Latin American dystopia transformed into nature, with its characteristic immobility, its reproductive bureaucracy, its eternal yawning with its malicious squabbles.
In this final installment, David falls ill with a disease that the doctors at the local hospital are unable to identify, to the despair and anguish of Simón and Inés. Estrella’s orphanage then adopts David as his spiritual guide, and on his sickbed the boy demands the copy of Don Quixote that he has brought hidden from the town of Navilla, the previous residence of the family trio he forms with Simón and Inés. From there on, the Gospel of Don Quixote unfolds its secular and delirious teachings through David’s mouth before an ever-growing audience surprised by the miracles that work in the child’s word. Reality is not reality but fiction, while fantasy and dreams are the world of true life, cries David in opposition to the belief of Simón, his tutor, who tries to convince him otherwise. The child is hardened in his will and transforms with it reality through dreams, or believes to do so putting at risk his health in the effort. “Promise me you won’t try to understand me,” David demands when it becomes evident his condition is worsening and he will not make it out of the hospital alive. “When you try to understand me is when you ruin everything,” he warns and admonishes Simón, then concentrating all his energies on conveying a message that the latter will never be able to fully capture.
Fiction escapes the meaning Simón would like to impose on David’s death as much as on his words. If his body must be extinguished like the figure of Don Quixote, it is because the matter of the world is imposed on his physical person, leaving the word to reveal him and name his place in that same world. Imagination is embodied in Don Quixote in the form of a novel of chivalry and its modern parody —something we already know from school texts— but The Death of Jesus adds an element that could be described as the nakedness of pure fiction in times of illness. This is not only because of the stark style Coetzee imbues the end of his trilogy with, with many blanks between one action and another that make the novel read like a parable, with elliptical passages that mimic Estrella’s bewildered surroundings and an extreme restraint in the pathetic developments of a child Jesus reading Don Quixote in his hospital bed. It also responds to what Coetzee himself has defined as his approach to late-age writing, where the story is never at home and omits its familiarity with the language it uses (the use of Spanish is persistent and evocative of the foreignness that runs through the book). A terseness where the aesthetic is indistinguishable from the ethical, an anti-ornamental dryness of the composition and the elements that intervene, to find perhaps the meanings that really matter to his characters: what it is to die, what it is to imagine, what it is to live in the short time that our bodies last.
Without seeking the coincidence, without even conceiving it as representation and purpose, The Death of Jesus is admirably the best involuntary novel about the pandemic that could have been written in these times of illness. It is pure fiction because it is a limit in itself. Its resistance to be carried away by demonstrations, too strong ideas, ornaments and supporting illustrations, are the best proof of the courage and authority of the genre to survive on bread and water, breathing underground for as long as needed while the plague of the end of imagination passes by.