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Why I found it hard to muster any feeling whatsoever about J M Coetzee’s new book

I confess to being baffled by Coetzee’s novel The Schooldays of Jesus.

Finding it very hard to muster any reaction whatsoever to J M Coetzee’s The Schooldays of Jesus, I broke an unspoken rule and quickly clicked through the early reviews. The Australian provided a loyal, deferential description of the latest novel by its best-known literary immigrant, but most responses ranged from the cool to the exasperated. Under the heading “J M Coetzee has lost the plot”, one reviewer suggested that the most affecting page in the book is the one that lists the 2003 Nobel laureate’s previous works.

I had also been pondering this forbidding, vaguely hourglass-shaped litany of literary achievement – flipping back to it repeatedly when coming (generally nonplussed) to the end of the book’s short, gnomic chapterlets. At the top of the list, there are the longish early titles, such as In the Heart of the Country and Life and Times of Michael K; at the bottom, it widens out again into the recent collaborations with Paul Auster (Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011) and Arabella Kurtz (The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy). In the centre, the one-word narrow waist formed by Disgrace: a novel widely lauded abroad but often reviled in Coetzee’s native South Africa, and one that seems to have marked the end of a certain kind of risk-­taking in his work.

This latest book continues a retreat into more cerebral, disembodied fictional worlds – novels advanced largely by stilted, rather coy Platonic dialogue through which characters emerge less as verbal approximations of people than philosophical propositions, to be tested in a carefully controlled, not to say sterile environment.

The hourglass also shows that Coetzee’s oeuvre has been marked by ambitious ­conceptual jumps. For most of his career, each book seemed to invent a set of rules, or toy with a different genre. Even within the quasi-autobiographical triptych of Boyhood, Youth and Summertime, the individual components vary in tone and technique, as if the slippery enterprise of self-writing needed to be approached anew each time. So it is strange to have an unambiguous sequel from Coetzee, one that picks up where The Childhood of Jesus left off, as if this were the latest instalment in a fantasy cycle, or a successful children’s book franchise.

“Davíd is the small boy who is always asking questions,” the publisher’s blurb tells us. “He has the big dog Bolívar to watch over him. But he’ll be seven soon.” The next bit earned a worried underline from me: “And so, Davíd is enrolled in the Academy of Dance. It’s here, in his new golden dancing slippers, that he learns to call down the numbers from the sky. But it’s here too that he will make troubling discoveries of what grown-ups are capable of.”

The main action of the book surrounds this academy, where the boy is sent by three mysterious benefactors after fleeing more conventional schooling. Here he comes under the influence of the maestro Señor Arroyo and his beautiful “alabaster” wife, Ana Magdalena. One of Coetzee’s many chilly and remote women, she intrigues not just Davíd’s protector Simón, but also the unsavoury Dmitri, a museum attendant who shows the kids dirty pictures and makes no secret of his unrequited obsession for the former ballerina.

Rather than subscribe to an education system that teaches children to use numbers like “ants” (as Arroyo puts it), this extreme version of a Steiner school teaches its pupils to embody them, to understand their soul, to dance geometric dances of metaphysical mathematics. It’s all very strange, el sistema Arroyo, though perhaps it shows up the arbitrariness of any formalised system used to discipline the young. The encounter between the sheer oddity of private human imagining and the necessary entry into shared systems of symbolic exchange is perhaps the deep theme of the novel – one dramatised in both its content and, at a further remove, its failure to work as a novel.

As with its prequel, The Schooldays of Jesus is written in a prose with a patina of flickering allusion – to Cervantes, Pythagorean mysticism, John’s Gospel – all of which tempts allegorical intervention even as it frustrates it. Faced with dotted references to vineyards and olives, repeated meditations on the meaning of “passion”, and even an appearance by a farmyard animal called Jeremiah, the reader’s mind works, Rubik’s cube-like, to try out one kind of interpretation, then another.

Are we perhaps reading the backstory of a religious doctrine, the “real” historical matter from which a gospel will one day be distilled? I thought this a rather smart reading for a while; but nothing in these late Coetzeean tales provides you with the satisfaction of a working hypothesis. In fact, the most interesting hypothesis I have come across is that the world in which these novels unfold is one drained of symbolic charge: a domain of broken, meaningless, non-functional figurative lumber that only the young Davíd (in a version of the Fisher King myth) might one day be able to restore to meaningfulness and fertility, to “signification”. “Your son is an exception,” Arroyo tells Simón. “He feels with unusual intensity the falsity of his new life. He has not yielded to the pressure to forget.”

Between the publication of The ­Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays, Europe has faced an enormous reckoning, its stable and prosperous democracies becoming a destination for thousands of people fleeing from their old lives. This crisis of strangers can’t help but give another unexpected inflection to Coetzee’s vaguely Mediterranean geography, where characters arrive from across the water and into the novel with no memory of what came before.

Somewhere else again, there lurks the possibility that within this carefully administered, rather dreary Spanish-speaking world, the novelist might be testing the limits and dimensions of a certain kind of utopia: ascetic, vaguely socialist, inclining towards the vegetarian. When Dmitri is found to be a brutal murderer, the trial scenes are positively Norwegian in their leniency and attempt at rehabilitation. In the town of Estrella, justice seems almost like Kafka in reverse: the crime is in no doubt; it is the punishment that proves elusive.

There is a Louis C K sketch about the deconstructive power of children’s relentless questions. By the end, the continual force of the childlike “Why?” has the comedian screaming about the most fundamental concepts of being and nothingness in the middle of a McDonald’s: “Because some things are and some things are not.” “Why?” “Well, because things that are not can’t be.” “Why?” “Because then nothing wouldn’t be. You can’t have f***ing nothing isn’t, and everything is!” “Why?” “Because if nothing wasn’t, there’d be all kinds of things like giant ants with top hats dancing around, but there’s no room for all that s***.” And so on.

In Coetzee’s very different take on all of the above, Simón the father figure answers, or tries to answer, each of Davíd’s questions in a measured tone, yet with an increasing exhaustion and lack of conviction: “You say you thirst for answers . . . I, because I am patient, because I love you, offer an answer each time, which you pour away in the sand.”

If there is love, comedy, frustration, passion or affection here, it is of only the most recessed, rarefied and attenuated kind. None of the characters emerges as particularly engaging, and so the resulting document is a kind of anti-novel, as wilful and unconcerned with popularity as its proto-messianic boy protagonist. Which is something that can be grudgingly admired, perhaps, but hardly enjoyed.

I won’t be waiting with bated breath for The Adolescence of Jesus; I’d sooner flip over the hourglass and begin again.

Hedley Twidle is a senior lecturer in English at the University of Cape Town

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories

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“Grooming rings are the biggest recruiter for the far right”: Rochdale and Telford prosecutor

Senior lawyer Nazir Afzal warns the government, and communities implicated in street grooming, to do more – or the situation will get worse.

Nazir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor who led prosecutions against a child sex abuse ring in Telford, and oversaw similar street grooming cases in Rochdale, tells Anoosh Chakelian why these crimes go under the radar, and how to tackle them.

How widespread are these street grooming cases?

My involvement started with Operation Span, which is the Rochdale prosecution, in 2011. And prior to that, when I was in London as chief prosecutor, I was aware it was an issue bubbling but wasn’t getting any attention.

Obviously we’ve now got Telford, Newcastle, Peterborough, Sheffield, Rotherham, Oxford, Bristol. If anybody watched the BBC’s film Three Girls, at the very end, they list I think 16 towns and cities where prosecution had taken place.

We know that it is extraordinarily widespread. Wherever you look, if you turn over the stone, you’ll find this kind of behaviour. 

What do each of these cases have in common?

What we discovered, ten years ago nearly, were groups of men working invariably in the night-time economy, either in taxi services or takeaways or that kind of business, hiding amongst whom were these predators. They’re not gangs in the way organised crime gangs are. They’re very loose networks.

There are vulnerable young girls in so many parts of this country, who nobody else seems to care about. And what these victims need is warmth, transport, mind-numbing substances, food. And where are they going to find that? You’re invariably going to find that in the night-time economy.

I used to describe them as easy prey for evil men. They’re easy to identify, and what tends to happen is that once they’ve identified one victim, through her networks very often they’ll find others.

These men are just taking advantage of the dysfunctional nature of children’s services and young people’s services that have existed now for some time. If anything, it’s got worse, because while there is tremendous learning, the resources have been reduced.

So really good practices – like one council would have a van that would go round fast food premises in the evening to identify young girls at risk and talk to them – are cancelled because they don’t have the money to do it anymore.

People work in silence. Information was available and wasn’t shared. That style of working is part of the problem. So time and again, people are just keeping things to themselves. It’s a lack of competence on their part. It’s competence, it’s not conspiracy. Easier to blame a conspiracy than say “you were rubbish at your job”. And that is constantly something that I have come across.

The victims don’t even see themselves as victims very often. Because of the poverty of relationship education and sex education in schools, these men make them believe that they love them. I remember in the Rochdale case, one of the girls kept calling one of the defendants throughout the trial her “boyfriend”. She doesn’t know any different; nobody has taught her what’s a good relationship, what’s a bad relationship.

Time and time again, survivors have the answers. What the authorities should be doing is listening to their local survivors, and building their response and their interventions on what the survivors tell them: “This is a journey I took, this is where you could’ve intervened. This is where you could’ve prevented my abuse or somebody else’s abuse.”

There are some very, very courageous, extraordinarily strong women now more than willing to share their experiences. And we do so little of that [talking to them].

How can the situation be improved for victims and potential victims?

A lot of these victims have criminal records as a result of behaviours they were made to do – we should be erasing those criminal records. That’s the way we can rehabilitate them. I think victims need compensation for what they’ve been through. And they also need lifelong support, and that’s not being produced.

Taxi drivers in Coventry are trained in local signs of abuse; it’s part of their licensing arrangement and I work with them actually on delivering that. Why is that not happening everywhere else in the country? Why are we not licensing and training takeaway establishments in the same way?

I discovered recently that in Newcastle, they’re delivering this kind of training. Sadly, it’s voluntary. The people you need to engage with are not coming. So unless you have mandatory training for people working in the night-time economy, it’s not going to happen.

Additionally in the hotel trade, one or two large chains are doing some good work in identifying young people at risk, and sharing intelligence. Why is that not everywhere? We know that predators use cheap hotels and places like that for the abuse they carry out.

The intelligence is there, it’s just not being used. And we’re not using community intelligence either. The vast majority of victims in this type of sex offending are white girls. There are Asian girl victims too.

When I prosecuted the Rochdale gang, immediately afterwards, I prosecuted the ringleader again for his abuse of a girl of the same ethnicity as him. That didn’t get any publicity and he got 21 years for that. So there are victims from the Asian community but because of issues such as honour, shame, and the fact that very often they’re told by their families that it’s “your fault”, they’re not coming forward.

So we need to understand that there are victims out there who are even less likely to report their concerns because of familial and community pressures.

We are scratching the surface, and it really irks me that each and every time it gets in the news, it’s two things.

Number one is that it’s the biggest recruiter for the far right in this country. If you go on any far right website, they use the grooming gangs more so than Isis or terror attacks as the means by which they recruit far right activists.

So we should be tackling this, and by “we” I mean everybody, including the communities most impacted, and most implicated.

Number two is we need to intervene much earlier, but we also need to do some perpetrator programmes. There are perpetrators involved who are still in denial about their activities. There are still people out there who think “well, it’s fair game”.

How can it be prevented from happening in future?

Much more work has to happen in terms of the perpetrators and perpetrators of the future – and that, of course, involves early education.

Too often, we wait until high school to start talking about gender equality and relationship education. We should be starting to talk to them about these types of behaviours and what they should be looking out for when they’re five, six and seven. We’re just building up a problem for the future by not doing any of this.

We should have mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse. If you see someone being abused, or you perceive to be being abused, then it should be your duty to report. What the government has said recently is that social workers have come out against it. And my response would be: “Well they would, wouldn’t they?”

NGOs are doing phenomenal work in its field, so there are lots of charities and groups up and down the country trying to identify victims and potential perpetrators. They don’t get enough funding. They’re working on a shoestring.

What do you say to those suggesting ethnicity plays a part?

The vast majority of children and young people are abused within the family. We must not lose sight of that. The second largest group of victims are online. Today, you can pay pennies to watch a child being abused in real-time, somewhere in the world. The third largest group is institutional; we know about places of worship – churches, mosques – we also know about the FA and football and judo and sporting clubs, and the BBC.

Street grooming is the smallest – significant nonetheless, we’re still talking about thousands of victims. It’s smallest comparatively to the other three areas.

More than 80 per cent of child sexual offenders are British white men.

When I’ve prosecuted Stuart Hall or Max Clifford, or whatever, people never said “oh, his religion, his ethnicity”, as if that was important. It wasn’t in their cases, and they remain the vast majority of offenders.

I’ve always said the ethnicity of street groomers is an issue. We can’t pretend that’s not what’s happening.

The night-time economy is one issue. But it’s not the issue.The issue is the availability and vulnerability of young girls. The issue is the fact that they are unwanted and unloved. They get no support: the NGOs that support them aren’t properly funded, neither are children’s services. That is the issue.

But ethnicity is an issue, and I don’t think the community is doing enough. I was really pleased to see, some months ago, I was invited to the launch of the Greater Manchester Muslim community organisation, and one of their four priorities is tackling grooming. And that is rare. Most communities would rather not talk about the subject, would beat me up [verbally] quite regularly for mentioning it, and unless we tackle it, bigots don’t need an excuse to hate you, so why do we give them an excuse? Why are we not tackling an issue that can be tackled?

You can’t just generalise about what it is that might be driving these men. We need to do a great deal more research into background, why perpetrators become perpetrators, in the same way we’re trying to identify why victims become victims.

Authorities are often accused of being scared to act because of political correctness. How do you feel about that?

I’ve not come across anybody who’s scared. I get bored of this going unchallenged. These are difficult cases to prosecute. Very often, the victim treats the prosecutor or the investigator as the bad guy for trying to destroy their “relationships”. Competence was the issue – people not understanding how to bring these cases. They had to leave their tick-boxes and their normal pro formas aside.

Some people, no doubt, may not want to offend a certain community, but I would imagine they’re in the minority. The large majority fail to engage because it’s really difficult.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.