The Childhood of Jesus

By J.M. Coetzee

Reviewed by Matt Binder

Coetzee is inarguably one of the most celebrated and decorated writers in the world. Among countless other awards, he has won the Booker Prize (twice), the CNA (three times), and in 2003 he took home the Nobel Prize for literature. The books that made him famous (Waiting for the Barbarians, Life & Times of Michael K., Disgrace) tackled apartheid South Africa’s social issues in a distinct and clear allegorical fashion.  Following the Nobel Prize, Coetzee moved his work in a different direction, one of self-reflection. Books such as Summertime and Elizabeth Costello take the form of clever yet self-loathing autobiography. While every bit as adept and erudite as his past work, they tended to recede into degradation, and were not on the whole as enjoyable. That said—when I learned that his new work, The Childhood of Jesus, would be a return to allegorical storytelling, I was more than pleased.

What a Coetzee reader first observes when picking up one of his novels is the meticulous and masterful prose. His books read with a combination of pristine rhythm and economy. The guy can craft a sentence as well as anyone writing in the English language. Take for example the opening sentence of his novel Disgrace: “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.”

The man can flat-out make words sing.

The second thing a reader notices is his worldview. Coetzee is BLEAK. VERY BLEAK. VERY, VERY BLEAK. His characters suffer what I can only describe as a complete inability to experience pleasure. Not from sex, not from drugs & alcohol, not from family or friends, not success, not anything. The man does not write from a place of passion. I’m nearly certain that Coetzee is not even vaguely familiar with the concept. His depictions of sex attest to that. While representations of the sex act as overtly romantic and idealized deserve nothing but ridicule and scorn, Coetzee’s consistent renderings of sex as pure drudgery call into question whether the man is even doing it right.

No, you don’t read Coetzee for his passion, you read him for his brilliance. He’s one of a select few contemporary novelists who actually presents ideas and not just stories. You read him to learn about morality and the individual’s place in society. He captures the human spark through explorations of failure and defeat. It’s Coetzee who best instructs us on the value of honor, principles, and moral fortitude.

Okay, it’s time for some actual consideration of the book, The Childhood of Jesus. Like I mentioned before, it’s a return to the allegorical form. The story revolves around a young boy named David who arrives in a new land with an adult companion named Simon.  On the first page of the book Simon says in regards to David, that he is “not my grandson, not my son, but I am responsible for him.” We learn through dialogue that young David and his mother became separated at sea and that Simon has stepped in to care for him. Armed with nothing more than his intuition and a strong desire to reunite the estranged pair, Simon makes it his mission to find David’s mother.

The country to which David and Simon have travelled is a bizarre one. It’s sort of oddly dystopian and socialistic, full of inefficient bureaucracy and primitive technology—a place where everyone is provided enough bread to eat and a small apartment in which to live, but devoid of humanity. Simon refers to it as, “A world lacking in ups and downs, in drama and tension.”

One of the most troubling aspects of the book is why they have even come to this new land. It is understood that they have come for a ‘new life’, but absolutely no mention of what was wrong with the ‘old life’. To ensure that that question is never resolved, Coetzee has erased the memories of all his characters. And to further frustrate the reader, none of them even seem to mind that their memories are gone. I kept asking myself: Who could possibly not have a problem with having their memories taken from them?

Anyhow, Simon takes a job as a stevedore, lugging sacks of grain from ships to the dock, and David makes friends with a boy named Fidel.  Simon ends up having a passionless affair with Fidel’s mother Elena, so passionless in fact that she refers to sex as ‘the thaw’. As in, “if you like, you can have another go at thawing me.” The book gains momentum when Simon meets a woman named Ines who he is certain is David’s mother. After an entirely insubstantial appeal from Simon, Ines assumes the role of mother. However, she proves to be an over-protective and incompetent control freak, and David suffers accordingly, maturing into a horribly entitled and difficult little boy. This leads to him being kicked out of the school he attends and assigned by the courts to a distant boarding school. Ines, unable to cope with the potential loss of her surrogate son, decides in senseless fashion to kidnap the child. Despite the fact that David’s condition is regressing in Ines’ care, Simon refuses to take action against her and supports her poor judgment (It should be noted that passivity is a trademark of Coetzee’s protagonists).

As the story unfolds it becomes apparent that David possesses special abilities. Perhaps he represents the savior in this allegory? He certainly seems positioned to assume the role. He presents Simon, Ines, and his teachers an entirely new philosophical paradigm, one that challenges the universally accepted understanding of numbers and language. The book’s core is the philosophical questions it poses. And at posing questions, Coetzee is the master, but what about the payoff? One expects answers from a Coetzee novel and I finished this book wondering, “What the hell did he want me to learn from all this?”