What Child Is This?

Over the summer, my local bookseller was reading through the advance galleys that had shown up at her store. After going through several much-hyped novels scheduled for fall release, she came upon The Childhood of Jesus, the new novel by J. M. Coetzee, and she told me that she found herself immediately in a different order of art—of philosophical inquiry and linguistic power.

Around 2003 I had a similar experience, when a number of major authors came out with books about professors facing sexual harassment suits. Coetzee’s Disgrace was so stark, brave, beautiful, and trenchant that the others seemed unserious by comparison. Is he the most stylistically rigorous and morally penetrating writer at work in the English language? To answer yes is to say nothing controversial. The only strike I’ve ever heard called against Coetzee is that he’s not very amusing.

The Childhood of Jesus is a strange book, engaging but inscrutable, provocative but obscure. An old man and a young boy disembark in a new country, Novilla. In a refugee camp they have learned Spanish, the language of their new country, and they have been given new names, David for the boy and Simón for the old man. On the boat from the refugee camp to Novilla, the boy has lost a letter that states his identity, and the old man has taken the boy on, in a quest to find the boy’s lost mother.

In the new country, David and Simón encounter at first goodwill but little passion. The food is bland, bean paste and bread. The people advise Simón and David to start life anew, “washed clean” of their old histories and memories. Conversation is abstract and distant. Simón “searches for the irony, but there is none, as there is no salt.” Everything is stupidly well ordered. Even the brothels offer their patrons a mass of paperwork. Is this some kind of dystopian afterlife? The dialogue is full of teasing suggestions. “Once you are dead you are dead,” Simón tells David. “The body doesn’t come back to life. Only the soul lives on.”

Action unfolds with a dreamlike, Kafkaesque absurdity. Despite his age, Simón finds work as a stevedore, unloading and carrying sacks of grain on his back, helping load them onto a horse-drawn cart, where they are brought to a warehouse filled with mold and rats. His coworkers philosophize about the nature of work, and the nature of history, and the substance of reality. “The spirit of the agora,” says the foreman, Álvaro. Simón never finds David’s mother, but one day, in a walk through the woods, he and David see Inés, a beautiful woman playing tennis with her two handsome brothers. Impulsively, Simón, who has theretofore been a fierce and loyal guardian of David, hands the boy off to her. Inés becomes David’s mother, and there are disastrous results.

She has a fierce dog who scares Simón. Her brothers, too, are intimidating. She puts the six-year-old David in a stroller. He starts to suck his thumb. He fails in school. The state wants to take the child from her, but Simón and Inés join forces to protect the boy. There is an escape and chase into the countryside. But nothing in the book is what it seems—they aren’t his real parents, they haven’t taken good care of him, maybe the authorities mean the best for the boy.

Any reader paying attention will be awed by Coetzee’s skill. His characters are sketched with quick strokes and embody wild contradictions, yet they come dramatically to life. All we know about Inés, for instance, is that she is thirty-five, virginal, has beautiful breasts, those sneering brothers, and that scary dog. She is at first uninterested in David, then wildly over-protective, and then clear-eyed and fearsome. The boy is similarly enigmatic. He learns chess, but he cannot add. He writes nonsensically, but teaches himself to read from a child’s version of Don Quixote. Is he an exceptional child or an ordinary six-year-old boy? David talks about raising the dead, but he also talks about becoming a knight and a magician. There is little if any physical description of his body, but there he is, the focal point around which the adventure so effectively revolves.

Dialogue regularly moves toward the epistemological. “What is human nature?” asks one character. Another wonders, “Can good will by itself satisfy our needs?” Back at the docks, one young stevedore takes a turn:

“Consider now history. If history, like climate, were a higher reality, then history would have manifestations which we would be able to feel through our senses. But where are these manifestations?” He looks around. “Which of us has ever had his cap blown off by history?” There is silence. “No one. Because history has no manifestations. Because history is not real. Because history is just a made-up story.”

These conversations seem depthless; they can be read as a commentary on the story, or on the nature of reality, or on the function of dialogue in fiction. Miraculously, Coetzee carries off this Socratic chitchat without any sign of artifice or strain.

The whole book is like an illusion, a bit of prestidigitation. What is real here? What is this about? The characters speak in fluent English, but we are told that they are struggling with their Spanish. When four German lines of Goethe appear, Simón says he doesn’t know what they mean, because “I don’t speak English.” Novilla itself seems to change: in this land that at first seemed so dispassionate, violence erupts, and excitement. We meet a sinister villain named Daga with an earring, a knife, and a flask of firewater.

At one point, after some philosophizing, Simón asks a young stevedore whether he has worked out what the real nature of a chair is. “It is meant as a joke,” goes the narration, “but the young men stare at him blankly.” And I found myself in sympathy with the baffled young stevedores—is this how we’re supposed to take The Childhood of Jesus, as an erudite joke, a wicked game of narrative and allegory? In his autobiographical novel Youth, Coetzee writes of reading Samuel Beckett’s novels and rolling about in his bed, laughing. So is he funning us? Is this how the old man cuts loose?

His greatest works—Disgrace, The Life and Times of Michael K., and Waiting for the Barbarians—have all partaken in allegory, and his characters have ever commented on their own construction. In Michael K., one says of the novel’s story, “It was an allegory—speaking at the highest level—of how scandalously, how outrageously a meaning can take up residence in a system without becoming a term in it.” But allegory in those great works was knitted to history: the systems were tyrannical, the meanings humane, the novels alchemical mixtures of horror and beauty, the ideal and the real. Even the long essayistic arguments in Elizabeth Costello revolved around violence to the flesh—violence to animals and to humans. But if there is anything solid at the bottom of The Childhood of Jesus, I can’t grasp it. The title itself is a tease. What has any of it to do with Jesus?

Here’s a stab at it: Maybe the title is more play with allegory, naming, meanings, and terms. Toward the end of the book, there’s a suggestion that David is going to take on a new name. I’m going to venture that the new name will be “Jesus,” pronounced in Novilla’s Spanish, more like the baseball player Jesus Alou than Jesus Christ, and (if my reading is correct) then, yes, what I read was the story of the childhood of Jesus, just not the Jesus I’d had in mind.

Ha ha ha?

Published in the October 25, 2013 issue: 

Gabriel Brownstein, associate professor of English at St. John’s University, is the author of two works of fiction. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W (W. W. Norton & Co.) won the PEN/Hemingway Award in 2002. His novel The Man from Beyond (W. W. Norton & Co.) was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, and one of Booklist’s Top 10 Historical Novels in 2005.

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