Life, etc

J.M. Coetzee’s The childhood of Jesus: Master still has it

By Richard Poplak 18 June 2013

J.M. Coetzee’s latest is in many respects his most difficult book. It is also his funniest, and his warmest. RICHARD POPLAK considers the master’s latest.

“They clothed me and gave me money.”

So opens Samuel Beckett’s The End, the first of four novellas he wrote in a spurt of productivity between February and December 1946, after returning to Paris from Ireland. The novellas represent, as the scholar Gerry Dukes has noted, “the first substantial fruits of Beckett’s transfer to French as his language of literary composition.” All four texts form the basis for what would become the vintage Beckett style, and remain minor masterpieces. They were written in a gap between languages, set in a landscape at once featureless and highly specific, beyond the reach of geography.

The End’s first line, one of modernism’s mellower mission statements, acts as the launch pad for The Childhood of Jesus, the new novel from J.M. Coetzee. The cover copy insists that his latest is “mysterious, masterful”, but for Coetzee obsessives—and there are one or two—no real mystery exists at all. Childhood stands as another of Coetzee’s oblique homages to his literary lodestar, acknowledging without submitting to the force that Beckett has held over his imagination for five decades.

What Coetzee described as the Irishman’s “fierce comic anguish” has been employed to tell the story of a man and a boy making their way through a city governed by a barren utopianism. Simón, on the fringes of old age, arrives in Novilla with a child called Davíd. They carry no money and no luggage, and do not recall where their journey began, although they understand that Novilla will be their final destination. Their memories have been wiped clean—they have only “the memory of having memories”—and Davíd has been separated from his mother. Simón has become Davíd’s sworn protector; acting on behalf of destiny, he promptly sets out to find the woman who will become the boy’s “mother”, his Mary.

“I arrived in this land bare of everything save one rock-solid conviction,” says Simón, with the magical thinking that fails to impress his fellow Novillians, “that I would know the boy’s mother when I saw her.”

Simón takes on the backbreaking work of a stevedore on the docks, unloading endless supplies for Novilla’s granary. The city’s economy makes little sense to him: it is not properly socialist or communist, but the result of a lump of inchoate political and philosophical concepts that provide a rudimentary if peaceable existence. No cars, no private homes, no flashy ideologies. And no appetite for sex. “You want to grip me tight and push part of your body into me?” asks a young lady of Simón. “As a tribute, you claim. I am baffled. To me the whole business seems absurd—absurd for you to want to perform, and absurd for me to permit.”

On an excursion to the outskirts to Novilla, Simón encounters a woman he insists is the boy’s mother. “You have doubts, I can see,” he tells the baffled Ynes, “How can this child whom I have never laid eyes on be my child? you ask yourself.” Slowly won over, she comes to lavish upon Davíd enough love and attention to ruin the child. Coetzee has always indulged his readers their misreadings, and if I am to misread the book as a sideways prequel to the Gospels, then surely this is how a young Jesus must have been raised: to be preternaturally aware of his own specialness, and therefore insufferably imperious.

Davíd, for all his precocity, has difficulty reading “Spanish”, Novilla’s native tongue, and instead invents a language of his own. He refuses to learn how to count—he is terrified of the spaces between numbers, the interstice between what they promise (rationality) and what they deliver (rigidity). He appears to suffer from what a schoolteacher describes as “a specific deficit linked to symbolic activities.” Simón believes otherwise—while Novilla has created a society in which anarchy is impossible, Davíd’s burgeoning genius grasps and celebrates the beauty of chaos. The authorities bring the down the gavel and enrol Davíd in a remote remedial school. Instead, Simón, Ynes and their ad hoc family flee into the mountains, into the space between spaces.

Indeed, The Childhood of Jesus is preoccupied with gaps, not least of which those separating various states of being. Davíd’s favourite book is an illustrated edition of Don Quixote de la Mancha, attributed not to Cervantes but rather to “Benengeli”. Cide Hamete Benengeli is the fictional Moorish writer whom Cervantes lists as the chronicler of Don Quixote’s adventures: in Novilla, a made-up scribe has more authorial heft than the man who created him.

“Things do not have their due weight here,” complains Simón of Novilla’s netherworld, a problem that Beckett’s protagonists would have understood all too well. “The music we hear lacks weight. Our lovemaking lacks weight. The food we eat, our dreary diet of bread, lacks substance—lacks the substantiality of animal flesh, with all the gravity of bloodletting and sacrifice behind it.”

This is more or less a rebuke of Coetzee’s alter ego, Elizabeth Costello, who in The Lives of Animals declared that our unnecessary consumption of meat means that, “we are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty, and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of.” Novilla is in all things a different construction from Nazi Germany, but it bears the grey hue of a system that subdues souls, that doesn’t allow its subjects to fully be. What kind of society denies even the possibility of acting out our worst impulses? How properly moral are we within a system that imposes a strict morality, when morality’s exercise demands choice?

For all this, Childhood resists direct readings, to say nothing of direct political interpretations. I doubt that it is meant as either an endorsement of Socialism with a capital “S”, nor a suggestion that these characters would flourish as more committed capitalists. And please cast aside your hopes for easy religious or spiritual justifications for the title. Within a convincing portrayal of purgatory, Childhood prods us toward the notion that equality, when perfectly realised, is just as unethical as its inverse. The city’s true enemy, it seems, is Davíd’s Catholic outlook, and his pull toward what Simón describes as “the primacy of the personal (desire, love) over the universal (goodwill, benevolence).”

In its rendering of the bond shared between a father and son, or a guardian and his charge, the book most closely resembles Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg, in which a grief-stricken Dostoyevsky chases the shadows of his dead stepson’s life through a wintry city. The Childhood of Jesus, however, is not motivated by grief but by love. Simón’s devotion to Davíd is the result of a kinship that goes beyond biology, and into the very core of fatherhood itself. “Perhaps the truth is,” Simón says of Davíd, “I am the one who needs him. Perhaps I lean on him more than he leans on me. Who knows how we elect the ones we love anyway?”

Yet what drives this curious and brilliant book is the disquieting sense that, “if we were all special,” as Simón puts it, “there would be no specialness left.” And the fact that our prophets—our Fathers, our sons of God—need us far more than we need them. DM

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All tortoises are actually turtles. Some turtles however are not tortoises.

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