“The Death of Jesus”: The Gospel According to John Michael Coetzee

John Maxwell Coetzee (I) receives the Nobel Prize for Literature from King Carl XVI Gustave of Sweden, December 10, 2003. SCANPIX SWEDEN / AFP / Archivos

Text by: Tirthankar Chanda Follow

5 mins

Nobel Prize in Literature 2003, South African JM Coetzee is the author of 13 novels, three autobiographical stories, collections of short stories and literary essays.

Admired for his uncompromising prose, the writer who took Australian nationality is considered one of the greatest contemporary English-speaking novelists.

His latest opus

La Mort de Jésus

, published in French this fall, testifies to the power of imagination of this master prose writer.


Read more


The Childhood of Jesus


The Education of Jesus


John M. Coetzee

delivers with

The Death of Jesus

, the final volume of his trilogy as romantic as it is philosophical. Written in a refined and biting language, which has become the hallmark of the South African Nobel Prize for Literature, the whole stands out from the profoundly secular work of the writer, who this time draws his inspiration from the symbolism of the nativity. , set in a decidedly post-modern and perhaps even post-truth context. Doesn't the author make his protagonist say that “

things don't have to be true to be true


The Jesus trilogy

is a reflection on the future of thought in a renewed society, where old certainties have given way to questions about the meaning of life, about what it means to be human in a world without memory, without passions and without emotions where the author camped his story.

Reincarnation of the Holy Family

We are at the beginning of a new social and moral order embodied in the trilogy by the protagonists: the young David and his adoptive parents. Reincarnation of the holy family, the trio is at the heart of the story, a story halfway between allegory and prophecy about human becoming. There is something of Jesus in the character of the little boy who takes adults by surprise with his independence of mind and his questions about existence that are in no way childish. His parents are reminiscent of the adventure of the couple formed by Joseph and the Virgin Mary.

It is on a migrant boat that David, barely 4 years old, abandoned by his biological parents, meets Simon, who becomes his adoptive father. Sensitive to the boy's situation, he takes the orphan under his wing when their boat lands on the beaches of an unknown country, where Spanish is spoken. They learn together to adapt to their new life, to speak a new language. They also meet Inès who joins them to serve as surrogate mother to little David.

If, along the way, David turns out to be an exceptional boy, he also proves to be resistant to classical education, forcing Simon and Inès to flee the big city to escape forced schooling.

The family settles in the provinces where the parents can take charge of their child's education themselves.

In the town of Estrella, where the family ends up finding refuge, they enroll their boy in a dance academy.

David flourished there in contact with a couple of dancers who introduced him to the grace of music and ballet.

Drama erupts when the beautiful ballerina from the Academy of Arts is murdered by the caretaker of the building with uncontrolled impulses.



Passion "

The cover of The Death of Jesus, third volume of the novel trilogy by South African writer Coetzee.

© Editions du Seuil

David is about ten years old when the third part of the trilogy,

The Death of Jesus

, opens .

From the first pages, we see the young boy affirming his spirit of independence by leaving his parents to go and live with orphans in the city.


I want to become whoever I want

," he told his parents, who reminded him in vain that he was not an orphan.

Suffering from a mysterious illness, David will be forced to return to the family home.

The biblical allegory is reinforced in this volume notably through the theme of the martyrdom of the young David, told almost in the mode of the Passion.

During his agony, David is surrounded by his friends from the orphanage and from the slums of the city who have come to listen to him recount episodes of Don Quixote, the only book he has read and knows by heart.

These are perhaps the most beautiful pages of the novel where the unexpected and the sublime coexist with the tragic.

For his disciples and his friends, David is an exceptional being, “

coming from an invisible star

” to “


up” the men and women of Estrella “

with a new vision

”. Mythologies are forged around this “divine” boy. Will they be the foundation of a new Gospel? Who will be the author? None other than the boy's father, since despite the misunderstandings that have poisoned their life together, the dying man has entrusted his father with the mission of recounting the actions of his son, who is not his son, while making him promise to don't try to figure it out. Because “

when you try to understand me, it ruins everything

”, he repeated to her!

This incessant duel between spirit and emotion is the strength of the trilogy of Jesus which, through its philosophical and religious intertextualities, remains an unexpected story in

the work of Coetzee


It nevertheless haunts the imagination of its readers.

The Death of Jesus

, by J. M. Coetzee.

Translated from English by Georges Lory.

240 pages, 20 euros.


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