The Childhood of Jesus by J.M.Coetzee
A version of this review was previously published in the Herald magazine.
J.M.Coetzee has been a literary superstar for many years now. He’s won the Booker twice, once in 1983 and again in 1999, as well as the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. That he is a master of his craft is a fact does not need to be explored. His terse, sparse prose is known for the worlds it can hold, the intelligence it resonates with great seriousness. None of this of course explains quite what his latest novel The Childhood of Jesus quite is.
The book is about a very young boy and an older man who arrive in a new land after a long journey on a ship. They are assigned names and ages, they learn to speak Spanish and make their way to a relocation centre in a city called Novilla (in reality, a municipality of Aragon, in Spain). Simon finds that getting a job hauling bags of grain at the docks is easy enough, and the young boy David spends his time waiting for Simon to find his mother. The two get along well enough, but Simon is certain that the child must be returned to his mother, even though neither had any real proof who or where she may be. The world they live in is strange, stilted, sanitised, an odd mutation between a Buddhist utopia and a new age communist set up. Homes are free, jobs are giving easily, food is cheap, vegetarianism abounds, people seem to eat a lot of bread, there are no spices to be found, everything is even and bland and a great many people take philosophy classes every night to debate what makes a chair a chair. Everyone feels a general goodwill towards each other and while people are friendly, sexual activity is generally considered unwanted and repulsive.
It is very easy to read the story of Jesus into many moments of this novel. When Simon ‘finds’ a mother for David, it is a woman who is a virgin. When a horse dies, David is certain he can raise the dead animal. When David is sent away to a special school, he is made to eat much fish and many loaves but eventually walks out of the institute, naked and unhurt though he has crossed barbed wire. David offers his other cheek when he is hurt, he refuses to accept the rules of others insisting, ‘I am the truth’. Of course, had it not been for the title, a reader may never know what to make of this highly allegorical story. What makes it further intriguing is that at a reading at a Cape Town university last year, Coetzee declared how much he wanted this book to be printed with a blank cover and a blank title page. Luckily, his publisher didn’t agree and so some sense of direction is provided by the title alone. Is the title then confining a reader to finding and trying to decipher a certain set of symbols? Is there more symbolism to be understood that isn’t visible when the book is read through the filter of the life of Jesus? Perhaps it is a book about immigrants, about displaced people, about displaced desires. Perhaps it is none of the above.
Simon says about the child David, ‘He is lost. You must have seen how lost he is. He is in limbo’. Another conversation leads to the suggestion that all who come to this new land are washed free of their memories, of their past, ‘washed clean of old ties’. This sense of letting go, of the unbearable feeling of waiting to move on is overwhelming in The Childhood of Jesus. So much so, that certain readers may even think this to be a book about life after death.
In my initial attempts to describe this book to others, I used the simplest, most accessible route - The Childhood of Jesus is, in fact, Coetzee’s version of J.J.Abrams’ TV series Lost: a lot of it doesn’t make logical sense, everyone is confused and yes, they’re probably all dead. Like the producers of Lost, I am entirely uncertain what Coetzee wants from me. It is a baffling book, even for those very familiar with Coetzee’s canon. If Coetzee was known to be a humorous man, one may even think he’s just having a great big laugh at all of us, Lost fans included.