"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

March 27, 2013

"The Childhood of Jesus" (2013) by J.M. Coetzee (Book review)

Coetzee's latest novel is one of his best: a multi-layered philosophical novel, on the one hand an allegory about a mysterious, indeterminate land where "desires" do not exist and where everyone is an immigrant, and on the other hand a tale about a boy with special faculties who does not fit in - he has some "Jesus-like" traits, and the Biblical Jesus floats as a constant allegory above the (secular) story, but with a healthy dosis of Kafka added.

[J.M. Coetzee. Photo Wikipedia]

First the land (Novilla) where a man (Simon) and a boy (David) arrive. They are not related, the man has met the boy who had become separated from his mother during the trip on a ship and only wants to help him find his mother again. In fact, the man keeps insisting that he is not the boy's father. The ship in which they came may have sunk. After a six-week stay in a center where all new arrivals have to go, where their memories of a previous existence are erased and where they have to learn the language of the land, which is Spanish, the man is helped by a bureaucracy with some Kafkaesque traits to work (as a stevedore on a wharf unloading grain) and an apartment. Life in the new country is very sober: the only food is bread ("the staff of life"), there is no meat - except rats. There are almost no shops. Work is done by hand: the sacks of grain are carried out of the ships on the backs of the stevedores, cranes have not been installed, and the grain is brought to the warehouse by horse-drawn carts. Sexual desire is also absent, it is a strangely bloodless world - when the man, who still has some memories of the past, approaches a young woman, she is disgusted: "You want to grip me tight and push part of your body into me." People are hard-working, kind and friendly, they spend their evenings going to free courses, in philosophy, Spanish and drawing. Or they watch sports matches, which are of course also free, for it are games, and "you don't pay to watch a game." This sober world looks very much like Coetzee, for hasn't his alter ego Elizabeth Costello been pleading for vegetarianism? It is the opposite of the contemporary consumption society, where people have too many "desires," and it has a certain Buddhist Utopian character - I was reminded of the saying "I am content with what I have" carved in a stone wash basin in the Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto. The Buddhist ideal of non-attachment is frequently evoked in the book. The question is: is this a real land or are we in a sort of limbo or afterlife - remember the ship which seems to have sunk.

The man doesn't know the mother of the boy but he believes intuition will tell him when he meets her. And so he matches up the boy with a thirty-ish woman he sees playing tennis with her brothers in a resort (Ines). She is a virgin (of course, considering the title). The man gives her his apartment and lives himself in a shed at the wharf. Unfortunately, although he had become good comrades with the boy, the new mother is extremely possessive and first completely shuts him out. Later (after having fixed her toilet) he is allowed into a closer relationship with her and the boy, as a sort of "uncle" or "godfather." Here, the novel changes to the education of the boy who has several unique and idiosyncratic traits and doesn't fit into the school system. When asked to write "I must tell the truth" on the blackboard, he writes instead: "I am the truth."

When the boy is forcibly put into an institution, the man and the woman flee with him into the desert, heading for a new life. The "Jesus" allusions get stronger here, the boy even acquires his first "disciple."

This "gospel according to Coetzee" - putting self denial above sensualism, written in his usual austere style - has a haunting quality and after finishing keeps turning around in your mind.

"Why are we here?" asks the boy. "I don't know what to say," Simon replies. "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."