Review: The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee
I am not much given to write book reviews because, as the saying goes, birds do not make good ornithologists. But with the publication of J. M. Coetzee’s latest novel, The Childhood of Jesus (Harvill Secker, London; Viking, New York) I am moved to address the issue of reader engagement or, shall we say, responsibility. That responsibility begins by reading a work of fiction on its own terms. That is, with an open mind. Professional reviewers have been put off by the apparent strangeness of this novel, but I sometimes think it is the job of such people to be put off, to find fault, to interpret beyond their means to justify their existence. But … what about the reader? When one buys a book it would seem that one is entering into contract with one’s self and with the author; a contract of respect for the intelligences involved on both sides. Scanning the commentaries of amazon.com buyers, I made a list of some of the titles these individuals gave their reviews: funny little book; more of the same; a strange land and a slow read; searching for utopia; a hollow egg and, my personal favorite, well crafted, but unfathomable and at times tedious. Of course, for a book to be unfathomable -if by that one means profound, immeasurable, enigmatic- it must, by force, be well crafted. Reading each of these “reviews” what was immediately evident, to me, was the unwillingness of the readers to be challenged beyond the easy and the conventional, the sentimental, the entertaining, the expected.
I have been reading Coetzee since he became internationally known with the publication of his third novel Waiting for the barbarians. I was very young and filled with ideas of how the world should be. That novel was painful to read, but the stark beauty of its prose, which I have never forgotten, indicated that indeed there was beauty above and beyond the cruelty depicted within its pages. That beauty was Truth. Echoing Beckett’s vision of life with no consolation, no dignity, no promise of grace, Coetzee has written that, in the face of it all, the only duty we have is “not to lie to ourselves.” Truth is beauty. With each successive book Coetzee has maintained that line, expanded the search for Truth. In my experience, not a single one of his books has been “more of the same,” and never “a hollow egg.”
So we come to The Childhood of Jesus. A man and a small boy have arrived at Novilla after an apparently perilous journey during which the boy has “lost” his mother. Novilla, a Spanish land devoid of all possible amenities, where politeness abounds but friendliness is negligible, it is the land where one arrives at after everywhere else has, apparently, failed. In its anodyne reality Novilla is neither utopia nor dystopia; it is more like living inside one’s smart phone. Once there, you are expected to clean yourself of memories and take on new names. The man and the boy are given the names Simón and David, respectively. Simón is very caring and paternal with David, but he never ceases to proclaim that the boy is “not my grandson, not my son. We are not related … the boy happens to be in my care.” Here we realize that the title of the novel is not misleading, for it serves to put the narrative in context. Simón is, like Joseph was to Jesus, a putative father. The man’s sole purpose is to find the boy’s “true mother” but he has no methodical or logical plan to find her, believing that he will know who she is once he sets eyes on her. Perhaps that was how the angel announced itself to Mary, too.
And so it goes that, one day, they happen upon the gates of a wealthier gated community known as La Residencia, where they spot a thirtysomething woman playing tennis with two men. Simón “recognizes” her as David’s mother. The woman is named Inés, she leaves La Residencia and moves into the gray flat where Simón and David are sheltered, and starts acting as the boy’s overprotective mother, quickly revealing her inexperience but nonetheless remaining steadfast in her maternal mission. If this sounds absurd, let us remember again the title of the novel and recognize that the concept of the immaculate conception is no less incongruous.
For his part, David swings back and forth between iconoclastic child genius and brat. The story ends as Simón, Inés and David flee from Novilla in the wake of a judicial order to consign the boy to a reformatory, the image of the flight to Egypt not even delicately disguised if it were not for –speaking of disguises- David being dressed up in a magician’s cape too large for his boyish size, and wearing sunglasses after partially having blinded himself in some sort of alchemical diversion. Although the coat is not specified as being of many colors, I could not avoid the image of the son of Jacob and Rachel, Book of Genesis, as re-hatched for modern pop culture by Andrew Lloyd-Webber in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream. After all, the Bible offers an explanation for the name Yosef: first it is compared to the word asaf from the root “to be taken away” and combined with the root word ysp, meaning “to add.” This may be a stretch of my reader’s interpretation, but I have a feeling Coetzee would derive quite a chuckle from it without denying me my reading which, after all, is firmly in the context offered by the title. Simón, Inés and David then meet a couple of people on the road, whom they invite to join them on their journey to an unimagined new life. It hardly seems worthwhile, the effort, the journey to a new place whose only promise is … a continuation of the same. … il faut continuer, je ne peux pas, je vais continuer … so ends Samuel Beckett’s L’innommable. Only in Coetzee’s vision everyone gets a name.
But biblical absurdities are not the only things evoked in this novel. The first of Coetzee’s Australian novels, Elizabeth Costello, featured a broad correspondence between philosophers. In The Childhood of Jesus the author ups the ante, the philosophical musings and quotations are integrated into the narrative. It should be said here that, shortly after arrival at Novilla Simón finds work as a stevedore in the docks where, during breaks, he and his colleagues discuss the nature of life. When Álvaro, the unbelievably affable foreman, questions ” … the thing itself … do you think remains forever itself, unchanging? No. Everything flows … you cannot step twice into the same waters.” I at once thought of Parmenides, searched in vain until Jacqueline de Romilly’s La Grèce Antique elucidated for me that it was (of course!) Heraclitus. Well … at least I was within the pre-Socratic ball park. And what are Socrates and the pres doing here? Well, Nietzsche did not like the way European philosophy had ensconced the hemlocked master at its center, so he offered Jesus as an alternative. And the plus points of these alternatives are healthily discussed in the dockside agora of our stevedores. Digressions? No, incursions into the heart of this very complex and stimulating novel.
John Coetzee loves to let the reader create, make, his or her own sense out of his novels. Is Novilla a Dantesque vision of the afterlife? Is it a Socratic/Platonic utopia? Does it deliberately spoof biblical clichés? Perhaps all of the above, perhaps none. Gertrude Stein, on her deathbed, is reputed to have asked “What is the answer?” When no reply came from Alice B. Toklas she said “In that case, What is the question?” I love novels that leave me to ruminate on its possible clues and answers. It is the author bringing in the reader to take part in his creation.