How much of our experience of a book comes from expectations? High hopes can either offer artificial buoyancy – at least initially – or make disappointment all the more acute. The human desire for loyalty and continuity must be relevant also: if we liked the author’s other books, we will want to like this one; it streamlines and simplifies things for us. (By us, of course, I mean me.) So it is with J.M. Coetzee, he of the Booker double and the Nobel, a reliable source of reading pleasure if any living author is. His new book seems to plough a pretty familiar furrow, to begin with, and I wondered if I would have dismissed the story as derivative if not for my faith in this man.
The Childhood of Jesus appears to fit into that category of novels where a man arrives in a strange land and struggles to make himself understood. The lack of understanding may be literal and linguistic (Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole) or emotional and allusive (Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled). Such a premise gives an author opportunities to highlight the human condition unshadowed by familiar geographical settings which might distract the reader: the great risk in setting a story in a known location is that it will seem to be about that location. Better to create a new one. The balancing risk in doing so is that the reader will spend most of the book trying to work out what and where the author is really talking about.
Certainly, the critical consensus so far on The Childhood of Jesus has been to place weight on the title and the numerous biblical analogies which appear in the book. A man and a boy arrive in a Spanish-speaking city called Novilla, having journeyed by boat “from the camp, from Belstar”. They have been assigned names and ages, based on their appearance – the man is Simón, the boy David – and have been “washed clean” of their memories of whatever went before. They are not related (“not my grandson, not my son”) but Simón has assumed responsibility for David, and his self-defined role shifts as the book proceeds: “guardian”, “sort of uncle”, even “godfather”. His main aim – his quest – is to locate the boy’s mother, but it soon becomes clear that this means finding a woman who can be placed in the role, rather than the one who previously held it. The boy asks him “Why are we here?”
‘You are here to find your mother. I am here to help you.’
‘But after we find her, what are we here for?’
‘I don’t know what to say. We are here for the same reason everyone else is. We have been given a chance to live and we have accepted that chance. It is a great thing, to live. It is the greatest thing of all.’
This tendency toward allusion, and to render the particular into the philosophical, is present throughout. Simón finds a job as a stevedore at the docks, unloading sacks of grain, and has debates with his colleagues on labour and progress. (“If you were to bring a crane, you could get the unloading done in a tenth of the time.” “You could, but what would be the point? What would be the point in getting things done in a tenth of the time? It is not as if there is an emergency, a food shortage, for example.”) He grows close to a woman, Elena, who challenges his presumption of mutual attraction between the sexes (“As a tribute to me – an offering, not an insult – you want to grip me tight and push a part of your body into me. As a tribute, you claim. I am baffled”), and to whom he protests about Novilla’s desire to curb “appetites” (“When we have annihilated our hunger, you say, we will have proved we can adapt, and we can then be happy for ever after. But I don’t want to starve the dog of hunger! I want to feed it!”). He argues even with the boy, in simultaneously logical and illogical ways, trying to impose his fading memories of how life used to work (others in Novilla consider memories to be things we “suffer from”), even directing the boy’s reading of Don Quixote to his own understanding. But his love for David, although oddly expressed, is honest and true, and is his only compass in this strange new place, which might be not just another country, but another world, another life. “What good is a new life if we are not transformed by it?”
Simón is something of a fool, pitiable in his inability to let go of the past and of his irrational beliefs, such as his conviction that a woman he sees playing tennis is the mother for David that he has been searching for. He follows through on his beliefs without regard to how they will affect others; or rather, in the belief that all will be for the best because he believes it so strongly. No need to look too hard for religious allegory here, nor as the book proceeds and David acquires what can only be described as Christ-like traits, and biblical references bubble across the pages. But the title, The Childhood of Jesus, can also speak of something about which we know nothing (or almost nothing: a dozen verses in the gospel of Luke). So Coetzee’s novel is also a deliberate empty space, cleared of context to enable the ideas and thoughts – the hopes we invest in children, and how much of ourselves we put in them, for example, just as we put our own ideas into Coetzee’s story – to be seen clearly. There are knotty concerns here on reading, on order and chaos, on political engagement, on almost anything you can think of. But, “you think too much,” Elena says to Simón. “This has nothing to do with thinking.”
Simón wishes for “some saviour” to “descend from the skies and wave a magic wand and say, Behold, read this book and all your questions will be answered.” What Coetzee has given us is a book not of answers but of questions. To use James Wood’s formulation (writing about Thomas Pynchon), it is an allegory which refuses to allegorise. Indeed, a distant resemblance for me was Magnus Mills’ Three to See the King, which, like The Childhood of Jesus, is rich in religious reference but resists reduction to one neat analogy. I was going to say “like Three to See the King without the jokes”, but that’s not really true. Coetzee is often seen as a gloomy, humourless writer (though those two words are not synonyms), probably helped by things like his reaction to Geoff Dyer telling a joke at a festival in 2010. But like many writers with a reputation for miserablism, Coetzee’s work does have comedy, most obviously seen here in Simón’s attempts to complete an application form for membership of a brothel (“Which is not to say that I am not a man, with a man’s needs”), and a dialogue with David and his ‘mother’ Ines, about a blocked toilet.
‘It’s my poo,’ he says. ‘I want to stay!’
‘It was your poo. But you evacuated it. You got rid of it. It’s not yours any more. You no longer have a right to it.’
Ines gives a snort and retires to the kitchen.
‘Once it gets into the sewer pipes it is no one’s poo,’ he goes on. ‘In the sewer it joins all the other people’s poo and becomes general poo.’
These are not the only straightforward pleasures in the book: Coetzee’s prose is clean and efficient, driving the reader on through the mazy stasis of life in Novilla. There is plenty of what, to avoid a cliche, we might call Kafkaish stuff. “He remembers asking Alvaró once why there was never any news on the radio. ‘News of what?’ inquired Alvaró. ‘News of what is going on in the world,’ he replied. ‘Oh,’ said Alvaró, ‘is something going on?'” This intellectual incuriosity provokes the opposite in the reader. The story itself is intriguing – bewildering, puzzling, frustrating, say others – though it’s disappointing that the blurb on my UK edition outlines the plot up to page 260. (The book has 277 pages.) These qualities, combined with the enjoyable and unaccustomed exercise of thinking about the book – wanting to think about it – all the way through, meant that in a strange sense, The Childhood of Jesus is the most fun I’ve had with a novel in ages.