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Sunday Times Recommends: The Childhood of Jesus by JM Coetzee

The Childhood of JesusBy Tymon Smith for the Sunday Times

Although he didn’t publish a book last year, JM Coetzee was a topic of much debate among academics, commentators and reviewers.

First there was the publication of Imraan Coovadia‘s Transformations, a collection of essays which kicked off with a sharp critique of Coetzee, his time at UCT and his decision to relocate to Australia.

Then there was the posthumous publication of JC Kannemeyer’s exhaustive and sanctioned biography of the Nobel Laureate, which divided critics over the question of whether its author had been too hagiographic in his assessment of the life and work of his subject.

Then the elusive man appeared on stage to accept an honorary degree from Wits University where he gave a speech encouraging young men in the audience to become teachers of young children, a speech that divided those who heard it between the perplexed and the impressed.

Now we have a new novel from the two-time Booker and Nobel Prize winner that is leaving some British reviewers scratching their heads dismissively, while others seem convinced that their inability to get a hold on the novelist’s intentions doesn’t mean it isn’t a work of genius destined to be debated by Coetzee’s disciples for years to come.

The plot is simple enough. A young man named Símon arrives with a boy named Davíd in a strange new land. They spend some time in a camp in the desert, learn Spanish and arrive at a relocation centre in a city called Novilla.

Símon, who is not related to the boy, has taken it upon himself to locate Davíd’s mother, a woman whom he will know when he sees her. The two are assigned an apartment and Símon finds work as a stevedore on the docks. Walking in the countryside one day, they arrive at an estate called La Residencia where they find a young woman playing tennis. Símon decides she is Davíd’s mother and hands over custody of the boy. Ynes is reluctant, but soon becomes attached to him.

When Davíd starts school, Ynes and Símon must deal with the authorities who detect a rebellious streak in the boy and want him sent to a special school on the coast. Refusing to accept the judgment of the authorities, the three escape across the mountains to a new life.

There are echoes of Coetzee’s Booker-winning The Life and Times of Michael K and his earlier Waiting for the Barbarians in the allegorical style and non-specific location of the novel. There are also, initially, as we follow Símon through the negotiation of the bureaucracy of Novilla, shades of Kafka and, as always in Coetzee’s sparse prose and description, there is the shadow of Samuel Beckett.

However, Novilla is not so much a dystopia as it is a utopia – a socialist town where everyone eats bread, works on the docks and has no memories of the places where they originally came from. Símon’s questioning of this leads him to realise that Novilla is only a utopia if you don’t question it. Once you do, it becomes an oppressive society of people who have no interest in the world beyond its borders.

Much time is devoted to philosophical debates that Símon initiates with his fellow stevedores and the women he meets in the town. When he hands over the boy to Ynes, things become tense. The sense of impending dread that has pervaded the novel up to this point seems set to arrive at a climax involving a confrontation between them. Instead, thanks to the meddling of the educational authorities, the two form an alliance to take Davíd away. They are convinced, like many others who meet him over the course of the story, that he is a special child with a unique way of seeing the world.

Is Davíd then Jesus and should the book be read as Coetzee’s take on the Gospels? It’s a characteristic of many celebrated authors – Jose Saramago and Norman Mailer, for example – that at some stage they turn their attention to retelling “the greatest story ever told”, and Coetzee’s novel might seem to follow this trend.

Although there are parallels in the attitudes of characters towards the boy and his innocent but wise take on the world, it’s difficult to read too direct a reinterpretation of the story of Christ in this novel. But there is so much ambiguity and philosophical rumination that it is also not impossible.

The main source of interest in the book comes not from a reading of parallels between its allegorical tale and that of Jesus but rather from the tension between Símon’s restless questioning of Novilla and the happy acceptance with which everyone else views their banal circumstances.

By the time the book ends and Símon, Ynes and Davíd find themselves driving off to the coast in expectation of a new life, it’s difficult to decide exactly what they and readers have been part of and for what reason, but it’s easy to say that there is something strangely compelling and intriguing about the exercise that makes it difficult to write off completely.

It’s not as successful or satisfying as Michael K, Waiting for the Barbarians, Disgrace or the fictional memoir trilogy but The Childhood of Jesus may be the most fascinatingly flawed book Coetzee has written in the past decade.

  • The Childhood of Jesus is published by Umuzi

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