Monday, 21 January 2013

The Childhood of Jesus by J M Coetzee | Another masterful novel by Coetzee

Gosh did I feel happy when my boss so generously allowed me to throw myself into the new J M Coetzee before her! It's due for release in March this year, and I feel kind of special to be one of the first in the world (out of prolly a few thousand other preview readers!) to have the privilege of reading The Childhood of Jesus. I literally inhaled the book which will definitely intrigue literature students worldwide in the next century. It would not surprise me in the least if Coetzee with this novel would go on to take his third Booker Prize. 

With The Childhood of Jesus Coetzee goes back to the almost sci-fi setting of Waiting for the Barbarians. Time and place is not defined. All we know is that we are in a (real? imaginary?) Spanish-speaking place called Novilla (which means "young bull"), that our protagonists have come across the ocean in search of a new life. They've had to leave their old lives behind. Memories, names, old family ties, and even language seems lost. We also learn that there is no return to whence you came. Those who come to this place must first learn Spanish, and then build a new life for themselves.

We follow the old man Simon (turns out he's estimated to be 45) and his "charge"/"godson" David, who is around 5. We learn that they arrived on a boat and that they stayed in the camp Belstar where they learned Spanish for 6 weeks. They have just arrived in Novilla, where Simon wants to search for David's mother. Without having ever met her, and with David remembering not a thing about her, Simon is still convinced they will somehow recognise her on sight.

The people in Novilla are helpful, and they express a lot of "goodwill", but there seems to be something lacking. Simon laments that they have left all feelings of passion behind. A diet of mostly bread seems to bother none of the other citizens, but for Simon it is simply not enough. His appetites for a meaty diet and even for women, have not been "washed clean". He still craves human touch, and he takes up a passionless sexual relationship with one of the neighbouring women. With his views and his appetites, there is a strong sense that Simon does not quite fit in with his peers. Nonetheless, he has a job and colleagues who respect him, and it is clear that David looks up to him.

From the start, Simon is clear about his mission. Before the boat, he did not know David, and the details about the boat trip are very unclear. We learn that David had a letter that got lost on the boat, a letter that in some way is connected to his mother. There also seems to be suggested that there was some kind of accident on the boat, and that it is a miracle they are both still alive. At any rate, Simon's mission is to reunite David with his mother one way or the other. When they eventually do find the mother Ynes, she turns out to be quite set in her ways of raising David. For a while David is completely kept away from his old "godfather", and Ynes' mothering threatens to completely spoil the child. But in one respect both Ynes and Simon wholeheartedly agree: David is an exceptional child.

Ynes does not want to send David to school, so Simon attempts to teach him to read through a children's version of Don Quixote. Similar to the character of Don Quixote, David sees the imaginary as being the real. In many ways, David absorbs Don Quixote's characteristics as believing himself to be a hero with great powers, as wanting to save someone who doesn't wants to be saved, and in seeing the world differently to the majority. Throughout this, Simon patiently humours him, whilst simultaneously explaining that other people might see the world differently. Despite David's intelligence, he seems to have a resistance against learning to read and write, and against numbers. He writes gibberish claiming that it means something, and expresses a deep fear of falling between numbers. Simon can't be sure if David is wrong and everyone else is right, or if it's the other way around. Eventually David is sent to school, and this is when the cracks truly begin to show.

Coetzee seems to be paying homage to Cervantes and Don Quixote in this novel. David embodies the essence of Don Quixote in what is considered one of the first novels ever written. We're in a Spanish speaking country where the imagination seems to colour everything David sees. If I had ever actually read Don Quixote I am sure there would be a whole added reading to Coetzee's novel, but I will stick with the little I know.

Seeing as the book is called The Childhood of Jesus, I cannot escape making comment of David as Jesus. David is of course also the name of Jesus' ancestor, King David, who also slayed Goliath. A little man who defeated a giant. In David's case, perhaps a prediction that David will topple the philosophical beliefs that prevail in Novilla? He is a child who does not fit in. Similar to Jesus, his beliefs do not fit in with the accepted norm. David's ideas are radical, and he will easily contest the truths of anyone else, including his "parents" Simon and Ynes. At some point he claims to walk through barbed wire, but we later learn the "truth" that there is no barbed wire. Further, David is happy to spend his time with "sinners" such as Senor Daga who is clearly a bad apple.

To connect this to his "parents", we have Simon who is older, and admits to not being his biological father, similar to how Joseph was not Jesus' biological father. He still protects and loves David as if he was his own. His name can also be connected to Jesus' apostle, Simon Peter who perhaps is best know for having denied Jesus. Ynes is perhaps not David's biological mother, but Simon claims that he intuitively felt that she was David's "true" mother. She strikes Simon as being virginal, similar to the Virgin Mary. Ynes is also derived from the name Agnes, who was a virgin martyr.

There is a lot of philosophy in this novel. Simon gets a job carrying cargo onto boats. It is heavy work, and he questions his foreman and his colleagues why they simply do not use machines for this type of work. The men launch into a philosophical debate about being closer to the thing itself, etc... And despite being working men, they all know their philosophy. And whilst Simon is happy to philosophize, he does not enjoy the philosophy class his colleagues are taking. The chairness of a chair, and the tableness of a table is of no interest to him.

I was kind of hoping for some sort of explanation by the end of the novel. Where did they come from? And why? What really happened? Seeing as it is Coetzee, I should have known better. I am left with two theories. Something big has happened in the world, and this Spanish-speaking place, be it actually Spain, or perhaps South America, seems to be the promised land of whatever time we're in. We're in a brave new Ellis Island. However, in order to be part of (physically) building this new place, the people go through some sort of brainwashing, or rebirth, to leave their memories and their passions behind. For Simon, this is only partly successful. There is no return-trip however. Novilla has a university where the citizens are encouraged to take classes for free, to educate themselves. A lot of other things are free, but the price seems to be that once you've committed to this new world, there is no going back.

My other theory is that this is death. The people have no memory simply because in the afterlife, your past life doesn't matter anymore. You have been "washed clean". Passions are dead, because you are actually dead. Thus David is alone without his mother, Simon is alone, and none of the family units in the novel are made up of actual blood relations. Thus the "new life" Simon is always talking about, is an actual new life. There is no going back, but who knows, there might be another new life somewhere else - in the reincarnation sense. This would also explain the vagueness of the boat trip, and the accident which David and Simon somehow "survived". In some old beliefs and religions, you leave this life on a boat to the next life. In the afterlife, everyone is feeling goodwill, but nothing more. With the exception of Simon. To take this reading further, I can also theorize that perhaps David is a sort of saviour in this world. The other people are still clinging to the laws of the human world, whereas David can see that there are gaps between numbers that you can fall between, and that there is a different language with which to communicate. He is trying to aid them in letting go of human logic, and in the case of Simon and Ynes, he at least has their acceptance. Perhaps this is taking it a bit far, but it's fun to play with ideas anyway.

I really liked this book. Congratulations J M Coetzee on yet another masterpiece! In my opinion the best Coetzee since Disgrace and definitely worthy of a Booker prize, numerous articles, and PhD's and master thesis's. If you haven't read Coetzee before, you have until March to read Boyhood and Disgrace as a sort of preparation. However, The Childhood of Jesus has a power that is uniquely its own, and uniquely Coetzeean. Go find out for yourself. 



Michał Januszko said...

I like your review, it's very informative and I can see you got deep into the book. I'm going to get "The Childhood of Jesus" on monday and I can't wait to read it. It's my most anticipated novel of the year since Coetzee is one of my favourite authors.

Amitava Mukherjee said...

Coetzee is my favorite author as well and Julian Barnes is next. Somehow Life & Times of Michael K moved me more than others. Hope 'The Childhood of Jesus' will keep me in the same meditative state. Also I will be eagerly waiting for the booker short list and don't want a timely and political novel to show up from nowhere and crush my hope. Thank you for your reviews I just joined your blog and will go back and read them all.

Sigrid said...

Welcome Amitava. I've only read Barnes' The Sense of an Ending, and I absolutely loved it! I hope you like The Childhood of Jesus. For me, it's one of Coetzee's best books.

Amitava Mukherjee said...

Thank you Sigrid, since it is not going to be out here in US until September I am getting it through Amazon-UK. Also I have a fan request for you. Since we just mentioned Barnes are you thinking of reviewing/reading "Levels of Life" by Julian Barnes? Heard good things already. In either case I really appreciate your thoughtful writings.

Amitava Mukherjee said...


The book was not selected in the long list even. :(