It’s tempting to imagine Jesus as an annoying child, a know-it-all, uncomplicatedly divine. In JM Coetzee’s latest novel, The Childhood of Jesus (Text Publishing; $34.99), it’s not clear if Jesus is truly present as a character or not. There is a boy, around six years old, and he is certainly a strange one. Is he an incarnation of Jesus? At times you think, Yes, the author wants us to believe so. At other times it might be that the child is merely a spoilt fantasist whose surrogate parents have indulged him into thinking he is “some kind of superior being”. The deification of offspring is common enough among parents, but such banal subject matter is for lesser writers. Coetzee hasn’t given the book its religious title for nothing. As the story rolls out only a reader completely ignorant of the Christian narrative would be unaware that it shadows the book.
The boy is a refugee in Novilla, a strange Spanish-speaking city. He arrives unaccompanied and is helped through the immigration process by Simón, a kindly fellow-passenger. The lad has lost his identity papers and so is given the name David by the authorities. Under Simón’s wing he begins a search for his mother, who he and Simón are convinced lives in this city, if city it can be called. The citizens have no past. It appears to be a prerequisite for living in Novilla that arrivals are unaccompanied by their pasts. The place has a totalitarian feel, a sense that the state is watching and controlling things with an “unseen hand”. Yet it is devoid of overt politics. The inhabitants are remarkably good-willed – even the one criminal who pops up, a knife-wielding thief named Daga, isn’t too bad a bloke.
It is a bland society, neither dystopian nor utopian. Like no place on Earth, pervaded by a mystical calm, otherworldly, it has been created only for the author’s devices. Samuel Beckett used an extreme form of this approach in his work, stripping away society to isolate the individual and summon stark emotional truths. Coetzee, a Beckett scholar, found a less esoteric use for it by giving those truths more recognisably human faces from which to speak, and societies to circulate in and be tested by. Early novels such as In the Heart of the Country and Life & Times of Michael K clearly take place in South Africa, Coetzee’s birthplace, but are not concerned with long scene-setting descriptions of vernacular culture. They create a parallel universe where characters can be more sharply brought into focus for psychological examination by having the society present in the background, but limiting its detail. The same goes for his great memoir trilogy of Boyhood, Youth and Summertime. His 1994 novel The Master of Petersburg, about the grieving Dostoevsky, is ostensibly set in Russia but really in Coetzeeland, delivered there by prose that reads like a distilled essence of English, where fewer words than normal are employed in the service of creating atmosphere and action. His 1980 masterpiece, Waiting for the Barbarians, extrapolated the theme of Cavafy’s famous poem of the same name: societies are defined by the threats, imagined or real, looming along their borders. But this was no dry piece of social analysis. The essence-of-English prose style created a perfectly realised parallel world, in this case that of a frontier town, with sublime lyrical simplicity. The poetic effects outstripped anything Cavafy ever achieved.
Writing delivers an extra charge if presented in the third person and the present tense. At least, it does in Coetzee’s work. It is a style the Nobel laureate used in his memoirs and has stuck with since. It’s here on display in The Childhood of Jesus. As young David begins to carry on in weird ways it works like a lens held steady at a slight distance to view him undergoing his dramas. The boy appears wilfully dyslexic, conceiving his own gibberish language. He says he wants to be a magician and can make himself disappear. He worries about falling through the cracks in things and into the holes in the pages of books. He is a failure at school but is inquisitive and confident. He is cheerful and compassionate, even wise. As the story proceeds you begin to wonder if David has the second sight, as the Irish say, or is touched with mystical powers. Perhaps his guardian, Simón, is touched as well, wandering alien through Novilla, not fitting in or understanding the social codes and customs.
One day during a bus trip to the country Simón and David encounter a woman, Inés, who is a well-off citizen by Novillan standards. By a leap of intuition or numinous insight they decide that she is David’s mother. Here the religious nature of the book deepens with nods to the gospels of Matthew and Luke, which propounded the idea of a virgin birth. Inés is described as a virgin, despite being 30 years old. Simón almost takes on an angel Gabriel role, uniting the special child with this woman: “The moment I saw Inés, I knew. If we don’t trust the voice that speaks inside us, saying This is the one! then there is nothing left to trust.”
Novilla may be a representation of purgatory, where good souls soiled by minor sin go to suffer a little and thereby be cleansed in preparation for eternal life. Simón’s intuition tells him that arrivals are “all supposed to be washed clean by the passage here” in readiness for a new life. He wonders how long he has to wait in order to “emerge as a new, perfected man”. The cleansing procedure appears to be little more than self-interrogation, including attending Novilla’s institute for self-improvement, which offers classes in philosophy or music or life drawing. “How one is to live” is a central question in the citizens’ pursuit of betterment. “Is it all part of a far too tardy transition from the old and comfortable (the personal) to the new and unsettling (the universal)?”
Even on the docks where Simón has found work as a stevedore, the self-improvement goes on, the philosophical chatter. Workers lump wheat bags on their shoulders because, on Novilla’s waterfront, cranes and mechanical aids are eschewed. Physical labour ensures each man has a regular job “helping food to flow so that your fellows can live”. There is no threat of being laid off because of technology.
An earnest intellectual life is all very well, but the nitpicking and bloodless, good-natured debate bore Simón and make him crave a bit of passionate sex to liven things up. He feels held back in his self-improvement by an inability to let go of “shadows of memories”. He is driven on by his guardianship of David, his sole purpose for existing.
Melding overt philosophising with narrative has been a feature of Coetzee’s recent work. How should we live? What is the purpose of life? Is there a purpose? These questions weave through his pages as they do through Shakespeare’s, Beckett’s, Dostoevsky’s, Hemingway’s or indeed those of any serious writer. In fact, literature might be less an art form than a branch of theology, a written quest for a lofty meaning to life or a secular bible of human thought, even when exploring the pits of human behaviour. Coetzee demonstrated this in his lauded social realist novel Disgrace, published in 1999. Set in post-apartheid South Africa, it addressed the horrific issue of revenge-rape by black men of white women as payback for years of oppression. When a nation has sunk so low as revenge-rape, where is the way out of disgrace? How does one find lofty meaning in such circumstances? Does one even bother?
The philosophy–storyline scales tilted strongly to the philosophy side with Elizabeth Costello, published four years later, and Diary of a Bad Year, four years after that. Coetzee the essayist and ethicist was on show. The very act of thinking, the sheer adventure of it, became the narrative. The Childhood of Jesus tilts the balance back the other way. Though hardly a conventional story, it contains moments that make you catch your breath because the characters are in jeopardy. The story of David quickens as the Novilla republic begins to take an interest in him, and Simón and Inés become like disciples, obsessed with keeping the boy to themselves and out of reach of the state.
Then it starts to seem that maybe the book isn’t religious at all. Is it all one of the characters’ dreams? The boy is given a picture book of Don Quixote to read, the tale of a man who imagined himself a knight-errant. Is it a clue? Is the novel a portrait of madness? Simón’s perhaps? Is it a delusion taking place in the creepy caverns of his mind?
When you read a book, it sounds out your knowledge and your sympathies, your intellectual and emotional limitations. The good ones keep on echoing after you’ve put them down, if you’re for it. You turn them over in your head. You become a co-author, contributing your interpretation of what has been read. The Childhood of Jesus is a novel inviting you to do that. It is a haunting, mind-bending read.
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