Book review: The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 September, 2013, 11:21am

The Childhood of Jesus
by J.M. Coetzee
4.5 stars

Dwight Garner

Plenty has been written about the essential qualities of J.M. Coetzee's novels, their severity, restraint and erudition. Martin Amis put it most memorably, if not most accurately, when he remarked a few years ago that Coetzee's "whole style is predicated on transmitting absolutely no pleasure".

That's a perverse thing to say. There are many varieties of literary pleasure. Not all involve wit or nimble similes or the contemplation of actuality's more antic aspects.

Coetzee's new novel, The Childhood of Jesus, begins like an homage to a book from another writer who works the stern and magniloquent side of the tracks: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.

Like McCarthy's novel, The Childhood of Jesus is about a man and a boy in transit through a world that baffles and frightens them. Here the boy's name is David; the man is Simsn. They have arrived in a new land where they know no one, where they have nowhere to sleep and little to eat.

In a sci-fi twist, with religious echoes, they have come through a limbo known as Belstar. Memories of their old lives have been mostly washed away. Simsn is not the boy's father, but is helping him find his mother. When these two are forced to spend a distressing night in a stranger's backyard, the man asks himself: "Is this a test?" Well, you think, of course it is. In Coetzee's moral universe, everything is a test.

From this point, not a great deal happens, while much high-flown talking is accomplished.

As with his previous three novels - Elizabeth Costello (2003), Slow Man (2005) and Diary of a Bad Year (2007) - The Childhood of Jesus is as much a work of philosophy as fiction. It's static, didactic, oracular. The storyteller in Coetzee has been almost entirely subsumed by the sophist. This is an unhappy development in his career but not an uninteresting one.

We have been delivered the spectacle of a great writer deliberately taking apart and analysing the pieces of his own heart and mind, as if he were taking apart, with tweezers, a schooner in a bottle.

This religious aspect of the book's title is, to some degree, a red herring. Coetzee does investigate the nature of belief in The Childhood of Jesus, but he has many other things on his mind, among them socialism, the nature of memory, and the joy and distress visited upon humans by sexual and other appetites.

Simsn and David have arrived in a kind of socialist state, where a faceless bureaucracy presides over every aspect of life. This state has echoes of the imaginary South African empire of his masterly 1980 novel, Waiting for the Barbarians.

Here, the food is meagre and grim; the transportation is free; there is no news on the radio. Co-workers refer to themselves as comrades. Everyone speaks Spanish. Winkingly, a boy is named Fidel.

The juice has been drained from existence, sometimes literally. (There are rolling power blackouts). There is an implication of a recent moral apocalypse, as if human ardour - pornography, tasting menus, credit default swaps - had bled over into annihilating decadence, and civilisation as we had known it has been crushed out of existence. Re-education has occurred.

Simsn wants to hang on to what's left of his own appetites. He still hungers for sex, and for decent meals. To a woman who preaches asceticism, and who argues that the general good is more important than the individual good, he replies: "What is wrong with hunger? What are our appetites for if not to tell us what we need?"

Desires, he says, lead to better things than crackers and bean paste. "They lead, for instance, to beefsteak with mashed potatoes and gravy."

The plot in The Childhood of Jesus does move a bit. Simsn gets a job as a stevedore, loading groaning bags of grain. He finds a woman whom he suspects is the boy's mother, and she takes him in. When the boy begins to have trouble in school - is he a mentally deficient troublemaker, or a savant? - the state decides to put him in a remote private boarding school. Simsn and the boy's mother go on the lam to prevent this from happening.

But these events mostly serve as platforms for dialogues, for lumbering intellectual table tennis. With the other stevedores, none of whom is more than a cipher, Simsn thinks aloud about what their labour means.

One of the men replies: "What do you say, comrades? Do we need a grand plan, as our friend demands, or is it good enough for us to be doing our job and doing it well?" With this, conversationally, we are off and running.

Simsn spends much of this novel seeking, and not finding, glimmers of humour and irony in this new world. The reader knows how he feels. One of his observations lingers over the entirety of this striking but affected novel. "If it is a joke," he thinks, "it is a very deep joke."

The New York Times