THE CHILDHOOD OF JESUS by JM Coetzee (Harvill Secker)
Tucked away halfway through The Childhood of Jesus, the new work of fiction by JM Coetzee, may lie the clue to how this strange novel (more like a fable or allegory) should be read.
As “Simon” teaches the young “David” how to read and write, by using an abridged version of Don Quixote, he says something that might be applicable to Coetzee’s new book. “Don Quixote is an unusual book. To the lady in the library who lent it to us it looks like a simple book for children, but in truth it isn’t simple at all. It presents the world to us through two pairs of eyes, Don Quixote and Sancho’s …”
Likewise, The Childhood of Jesus depends to an extent on playing on the dichotomy of a name that resonates differently in the Spanish and the English worlds. Jesus is a pretty common name in the Spanish cosmos, whereas in the Anglophone world Jesus is strictly associated with the founder of Christianity. The novel is set in an unnamed Spanish-speaking country bordering on an ocean. It could be any or none of these: Spain, Chile or Mexico.
The novel also finds its force from referencing a portion of Jesus Christ’s life that was never properly documented. We read in the Gospel of Saint Luke of Jesus going to the temple when he was a few days old to be circumcised and “present[ed]… to the Lord”.
It is a devout man named Simeon (a version of the name of the other main protagonist in Coetzee’s novel) who, on seeing Jesus, exclaims: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
The next time we hear about Jesus (in the Bible) he is 12. He is in the temple arguing with greying scribes and scholars, all of whom are “amazed at his understanding and his answers”. When his parents scold him for straggling, he says: “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my father’s house?” The third time Jesus makes an entrance, he is already 30, about to embark on his suicidal mission to save humankind from itself.
From the mouth of God
There is something else biblical about The Childhood of Jesus. David’s speech is littered with exclamation marks and theatricality in ways that remind me of the Gospel of Saint Mark. For instance, in the episode in which a blind man is healed by Jesus, Mark writes: “So they called to the blind man, ‘Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.’ Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.” (Compare this with David and Simon talking about falling. Simon says: “… nobody can fall through a crack in the paving. Now hurry up.” And David replies: “I can! You can! Anyone can! You don’t know!”)
Coetzee’s book contains phrases, aphorisms and sentences that could have been lifted straight from the Bible: “washed clean”; “faith means believing in what you do even when it does not bear visible fruit” (compare this with Hebrews 11, verse 1: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see”); or “One cannot live on bread alone. It is not a universal food.” (Compare this with Matthew 4, verse 4: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”)
The Childhood of Jesus begins with two males, who could be father and son or grandfather and grandson but aren’t, looking for a bureaucrat to issue them with a room to stay in and a place to work. They have come from some holding camp in a place called Belstar, where they have been given new identities.
Of their past, nothing is known. During a shipwreck, the young boy, David, lost a letter that could have provided clues to his identity. While Simon goes about looking for the boy’s mother, he adopts David out of pity. But there is catch: he doesn’t know the name of the boy’s mother nor does the boy seem to remember much. Simon wants to examine hundreds of thousands of papers in some office file, but a bureaucrat won’t allow it. Besides, she argues, “most people, by the time they get here, have lost interest in old attachments”. Surely not in your own son and a child as special as David? Perhaps that’s why David’s mother abandoned him: he was a special boy who could only bring trouble for himself and her.
The new, amnesiac city of Novilla in which the boy and the man find themselves is populated by asexual people who, instead of love and passion, have only its inferior cousin, goodwill. But the cogs of the city’s bureaucracy are well oiled: the buses are free and run on time; the hospitals are staffed by kind, efficient nurses; even the brothels are run by punctilious staff. Sex is portrayed in the most mechanical, and for that reason baffling, terms: “You want to grip me tight and push part of your body into me.” When someone deigns to agree to have sex with Simon, it seems they do it out of some kind of misplaced duty that has nothing to do with passion. (“If you like, you can have another go at thawing me,” is meant to be an invitation to have sex).
David (his given age is about five) is exceptionally intelligent. Just two weeks after being taught how to play chess, he is already defeating his guardian Simon’s older workmates. After one such match, someone David has defeated says: “You’ve got a real devil in you.”
One day it occurs to Simon that the child isn’t merely clever, “but something else, something for which at this moment he lacks the word”.
Despite the city being coastal, it’s so insular and oblivious to the rest of the world that one must wonder whether it’s earthly at all. One day Simon asks “why there was never any news on radio. ‘News of what?’ inquired Alvaro. ‘News of what is going in the world,’ he replied. ‘Oh,’ said Alvaro. ‘Is something going on?’ ” The strangeness continues when, while Simon is looking for David’s mother, he decides she is a woman called Ynes. The woman, naturally enough, recoils at her new maternal role. To persuade her, Simon explains: “You have doubts, I can see. ‘How can this child whom I have never laid eyes on be my child?’ you ask yourself. I plead with you: put doubt aside, listen to what your heart says.” This incident, of course, recalls a comparable biblical one in which Joseph is told to marry his pregnant “virgin” wife-to-be, who is expecting without having had a part of some male body pushed inside her.
Midway through the book, predestination raises its head. David, explaining why he actively searched for Ynes even when they were destined to find each other, says: “It’s not enough to sit around waiting for destiny to act … someone has to bring the idea into the world. Someone has to act on behalf of destiny.”
The book contains some of Coetzee’s concerns, among them his vegetarianism. On this, Simon says: “I am not saying there is actual poo in your sausage. But there is poo meat in it. Pigs are unclean animals. Pig meat is poo meat.”
Canines make a return, through an Alsatian named Bolivar. And there is the doctrine of the male teaching young children, the same concept that befuddled so many South African commentators when Coetzee, accepting an honorary doctorate from Wits University late last year, encouraged the male graduates there to become teachers. Indeed, when David eventually goes to school, he’s taught by a humourless, one-eyed man.
Throughout the book there are allusions to David being a “superior being”. He seems to believe it: he tells his classmates that “he can make people disappear” and that “there are volcanoes everywhere that we can’t see, only him”. He asserts that he is “the truth” (compare this with John 14, verse 6: “I am the way, the truth and the life”); he seems to believe he can resurrect an old horse that has been shot dead. Towards the end, David even tells his “parents” to “call me by my real name” (you actually wonder whether he has finally worked out the conundrum of his real identity).
So what the hell is going on here? How should we read this gospel from Saint John? We might want to think of it as one of the many apocryphal texts that were floating around 2 000 years ago in the early days of Christianity. Reading The Childhood of Jesus reminded me of the time, in 2007, when the The Gospel of Judas came out. Washed clean of biographical details, insular and self-contained in its Gnosticism, Judas’ gospel, instead of really shedding light, only added to the confusion.
When I started reading the Coetzee at the Gautrain station in Hatfield, Pretoria, an Afrikaner in shorts came up to see what I was reading. “Have you read the Bible,” he asked, adding that Coetzee’s is the kind of book that can only bring confusion. He was right, but not in the evangelical sense.
After Coetzee’s recent autobiographical parodies, in which the self is pickled in some half-stale vinegar, culminating with Summertime, this book will engage and befuddle many.
All the way through to the book’s end, I was looking for clues to the Coetzeean cipher. So I can’t say I really enjoyed The Childhood of Jesus; in fact, I don’t think it’s in the nature of the book to be savoured, but certainly it is possessed of a certain austere charm. Part of its offbeat appeal is dependent on enigmatically framing that Judaic narrative, in a modern ambience, to result in a quirky post-nativity story. But whatever the book lacks in the way of narrative charm and appeal is compensated for by a cogent take on Coetzee’s world; and, as always, the prose is highly efficient and clinical.
If The Childhood of Jesus had appeared 2 000 years ago, it would certainly have been relegated to the apocryphal section of the gospels as lifeless and self-indulgent. Still, you can be sure the disciples of Saint John will read it as The Gospel of the Childhood of Jesus, rapt, poring over the latest addition to the testament of the beloved mystic stranded on some island. Patmos perhaps?