J. M. Coetzee's The Childhood of Jesus: Not Quite The Second Coming (But Pretty Damn Close)

on Friday, March 8, 2013
Since moving to Australia in 2002, prize magnet and notorious recluse J. M. Coetzee has been struggling with (and, for the most part, succumbing to) the artistic dampening that comes with contented hermitude. While he remains my favourite living writer, even I have to admit that his post-South African output has been of a different class altogether to novels such as The Life and Times of Michael K., Waiting For The Barbarians and Disgrace. Both Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man were middling dalliances of drudgery, while Diary of A Bad Year was a fascinating experiment, but hardly a raging success. It wasn't until 2009's Summertime, the final instalment in his autobiographical trilogy, that I could discern signs of a resurrection. It's ironic then, that the book that should properly herald his return is titled The Childhood of Jesus.

Released in Australia today, The Childhood of Jesus is Coetzee at his elusive, spare and philosophically challenging best. Time and place are of little consequence - we are told not where the story takes place (our only clue is that it is an island and its language is Spanish) nor when. Even the names of the main characters aren't their own - they have been assigned by a processing centre upon arrival. It is not clear whether they are refugees or immigrants. This all-pervading sense of dislocation gives the novel a brilliantly unsettling atmosphere; the island is Coetzee's own spin on utopia, but is distinctly dystopian.

The novel begins as Simon and his young charge David (the boy, we are told, is not his son, nor his grandson, but Simon is responsible for him nonetheless) arrive in the city of Novilla, having left the processing centre after several weeks of acclimatisation. Their initial goal is to find shelter, food and, in Simon's case, employment but it soon becomes clear that Simon has a much more important task in mind. He wants to find the boy's mother. As he makes clear from the outset, he does not know who he is searching for, but he will recognise her when he sees her. What follows is a semi-picaresque (no surprises that Don Quixote gets a few doffs of the cap), where man and boy learn the strange ways of a new home that proves both welcoming and hostile in equal measures.

Although comparisons with Kafka are inevitable - The Castle is clearly a reference point - I sensed a much less likely literary forebear hiding in the wings. Simon and David's cryptic conversations about the basics of life and society reminded me of the dialogue between Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett's Waiting For Godot. Similar elipsese, similar parlance. Apparently there are also parallels to be drawn with The New Testament (title aside, Jesus doesn't get an actual look in) but I'll leave those to the theologians among you. What I can say is that Coetzee revisits some familiar territory - questions of identity, ethical living (the episode with the dray horse is particularly touching), fear of the other and the purpose of telling stories - but has the benefit of age and distance to bring a new, even deeper spin to them.

When I first read the blurb on The Childhood of Jesus, I thought that Coetzee had finally found his new great injustice against which to rally. Living in Adelaide, he can hardly be impervious to the disgraceful treatment of refugees in this country. Having now read the book, I'm not quite convinced that it was anything more than a catalyst, if it was even that. Either way, something must have been getting his goat, because this novel shows that the The World's Greatest Author (In Anticipation of A Return To Form)TM has finally bucked the Nobel curse and found his feet in his new home. That's not to say the novel isn't without its problems. It is a tad overcooked and might have done well with a little excision (not that I envy the person who must suggest this to a notoriously difficult man). But as a return to form, as a novel of complex ideas, it is a definite success. Sure, it may not quite be at the standard of his classics, but The Childhood of Jesus is certainly worthy of Coetzee's reputation and your time.

4 out of 5 Nobel Prizes


Evan said...

It seems Coetee has returned to the allegorical style of Waiting for the Barbarians - exploring real-world political, moral and philosophical issues in narrative set "long ago and far away."

I'm looking forward to reading this, but I'm tackling semi-forgotten Aussie author David Ireland's The Unknown Industrial Prisoner at the moment - which is quite a meal in and of itself, and quite "philosophically challenging" in its own way!

The Bookworm said...

Agreed on The Barbarians comparison, though this is not quite so well-realised. I'd probably put this on the same level as Foe or Master of Petersburg in his catalogue.

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