As would be clear to anyone who read the review in Commonweal of J.M. Coetzee’s new novel TheChildhood of Jesus, the work is not a biblical narrative concerning the Holy Family. Serious playfulness to the point of obscurity challenges a reader of any of Coetzee’s works. It is as if one sits across from a great chess master in part in awe, in part in frustration as he moves his pieces in ways that both befuddle and illuminate. I find his prose and his unique insight compelling, if not compulsive, reading. The plot suggests some sort of parable in that the story concerns a young boy who in the course of the novel emerges as demanding, gifted, visionary, and troubling. He is accompanied by an adult who assumes responsibility for his well-being. When on the ship that transports them and unspecified others to a new life, the boy loses the papers that should establish his identity. The frame of the story involves a journey to a new beginning (Novilla is the city where Simón, the adult, and David, the boy, arrive.) They receive new names. [There are no surnames.] Simón reflects that they have been washed clean of their memories: their identities, adult and child, are fluid, unfixed by parentage or nation. The novel ends in a journey to another new beginning: the impulse grounded in escape from the society to which that have been inducted, one, although benign in intent, threatens the uniqueness of the child David.
This new world, which though stiffly formal in bureaucracy and structure, is rationally accommodating: the arriving newcomers, after some difficulty, are provided with a place to live, and Simón, with employment. There are few real hardships to their existence: food, though bland, is sufficient, the work as a stevedore is hard and fulfilling, especially in the companionship Simón finds in his workmates. There is but one villain in the piece, a Mr. Dada, who offers disconcerting violence, sexual prompting, and temptations – in particular by indulgence of the child. The rest of society is remarkably orderly and placid.
Fellow stevedores take evening classes in philosophy and offer a level of discourse greatly above the stereotypical working class. Coetze exploits these to push the novel into moral and ethical concerns that are partially mirrored by the conflicts in the plot. These conflicts arise from Simón’s attempt to discover David’s mother: he knows by intuition that Inez is the woman, and she, without every having had a child, agrees that she is indeed mother to David. The pair maintain a tense guardianship without living as husband and wife, with Simón attempting to offset what he sees to be Inez’s indulgence. He is educator, rearing the five year-old on Don Quixote, attempting to teach him to read, write, and do sums.
We come to understand that we are reading the story of the raising of a child of “the family of David.” The narrative invites us to find allegory; the new world Simón feels is strangely antiseptic: “Benevolence, I must tell you is what we keep encountering here. Everyone wishes us well, everyone is ready to be kind to us. . .[but] Can goodwill satisfy our needs?” The utopian idealism frets and constrains. Appetites are tethered, sex is the movement of body parts, and stasis, not progress, seems the underlying goal of all social institutions. Above all, memory of the other life, the life before the passage to Novilla is washed or wished away.
For so bland a place, the depiction of life in the narrative is paradoxically vivid. Coetzee takes us to a future time where the conditions of life are oddly familiar: housing estates, problems with plumbing, a school system complete with resident psychologists, and a social welfare system as encompassing as it is rigid. Simón’s work harks back to pre-containership days. He manhandles sacks of grain up ladders out of the hold and is regarded with suspicion when he suggests the use of a powered lift. (The innovation results in his incapacitation in an accident.) There are no cell phones, computers or the internet.
Simón is welcomed with an openness that simply cannot evolve to real warmth, either in friendship or in intimacy with women. Yet throughout we hear discussions of the nature of the real, the goodness of nature, and the underpinnings of faith. The community is intellectually engaged, but scarcely self-aware or uneasy under the constraints by which they live.
The arc of the narrative offers us brief parallels to the stories of Jesus’s life. David, the child, proves precocious. He excels at chess, and his capacity for imaginative involvement with books sets him apart – as does Inez’s reluctance to send him to school. The lad from the start wishes to emulate the deluded knight errant, Don Quixote, and Simón, in pages of dialogue, wrestles with the boy’s impossible “why” questions and tries, to no avail, to temper his desires to follow the knight’s heroic deeds. At first, Simón proves the rational apologist for conformity, but soon joins Inez in rejecting social controls.
The plot reaches crisis when David’s woeful performance in class causes his teacher’s strong recommendation that he be sent to a special boarding school. Yet David, apparently unable to read, write or do arithmetic in school, shows precocious ability in all three when at home. He stuns his teacher when he is tested again. The resident psychologist, rationally and patiently, explains that David has to be taken to the special school if he is to be integrated into society. His upbringing, his life before emigration, has scarred him. In violent rejection, Inez, David, and Simón flee from authority, heading north, as “the family of David,” to some further refuge known as Estrellita, which of course connotes “star.”
Here the narrative reaches its climactic point, a transfiguration: David, consumed by his own self-centering vision, has been given a special gift by Senor Dada. At the first evening’s stopping place, a darkened cabin, David finds the gift from Dada: a magician’s cape and a bag of magic power that offer invisibility. He stands in the cape before a mirror, lights the powder and is blinded by a sudden flash. His hand is burned, his eyes dazzled, and as he reports later to a doctor he has new sight – he regards the world in new ways. The rattletrap conveyance, a car borrowed from Inez’s surly brother, will take them on rough roads to the north. David offers wildly impossible hopes to all. To the question, “What are we going to do there?” Simón asserts that they will arrive and greet their hosts by saying: “Good morning, we are new arrivals, and we are looking for somewhere to stay . . . to start a new life.”
Stylistic analysis might help explain why and how the novel is such compelling reading. The prose is spare and effortless. The details (including a blocked toilet) are disconcertingly “real.” Coetzee is not simply shifting allegorical chess pieces, and yet the uncanny, that the world of Novilla will not countenance, highlights even more Simón’s desire for transfiguration and his assertions about the need for faith. His attempts to restrain David’s imaginative vision ultimately collapse in fruitless dialogue. David is never satisfied with the utilitarian answer, and ultimately neither is Simón. Inez seems to operate on another different, intuitive and profound level: she knows what is harshly repressive to the child’s growth, and she will give her life to free him.
There is no “and the moral of the story is . . .” Coetzee takes us to a word sufficient in all earthly ways, even one capable of higher order thought, but one devoid of art and imagination. That which is most deeply spiritual is most in danger, and the hope for its sustenance drives the plot towards ambiguous resolution.